In a court decision that could seriously effect the way the Internet operates, a judge in Italy has ruled three Google employees are criminally responsible for offensive content posted on the site. Google has vowed to appeal the decision.
It all started in 2006, when a group of students in Turin videotaped themselves pushing and taunting a fellow student who is autistic. They then posted the video on Google. It stayed on the site for two months, garnering 5,500 views and gathering 800 comments. Eventually police found out about the video and notified Google. The video was taken down within two hours.
Google wrote on its official blog:
We also worked with the local police to help identify the person responsible for uploading it and she was subsequently sentenced to 10 months community service by a court in Turin, as were several other classmates who were also involved. In these rare but unpleasant cases, that's where our involvement would normally end.
But it didn't, because a Down syndrome advocacy group pushed for charges against Google. Prosecutors agreed, and charged four Google employees with criminal defamation and a failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. The judge found them not guilty on the defamation charges, and convicted three of them on the privacy count.
"We will appeal this astonishing decision," Google spokesman Bill Echikson said at the courthouse. "We are deeply troubled by this decision. It attacks the principles of freedom on which the Internet was built."
One of the men convicted was Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel. He noted that he was convicted for privacy violations despite devoting his career to "preserving and protecting personal privacy rights."
"The judge has decided I'm primarily responsible for the actions of some teenagers who uploaded a reprehensible video to Google video," Fleischer said in a statement.
Senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond said he was "outraged" that he was found criminally responsible for the video, noting that both European Union and Italian law recognized that Internet service providers like Google are not required to monitor content that they host.
"This verdict sets a dangerous precedent," Drummond said in a statement. "(It also) imperils the powerful tool that an open and free Internet has become for social advocacy and change."
Prosecutor Alfredo Robledo said he was satisfied with the decision because it upheld the principal of privacy and put the rights of the individual ahead of those of a business. It could force Google, and any other hosting platform, to better monitor its video, he added.
"This is the big principal affirmed by this verdict," Robledo said. "It is fundamental, because identity is a primary good. If we give that up, anything can happen and that is not OK."
Prosecutors noted that while Google did take the video down quickly after being notified, it never should have taken that long. During the two months it was on the site, other viewers had flagged it, and it was at the top of the "most entertaining videos" list, so, they say. Google should have known about it much sooner.
Google wrote that the ruling could set a dangerous precedent for the Internet:
It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.