An Italian court has overturned the conviction of three Google executives found guilty of breaking Italian law by allowing a video of a bullied teenager to be posted online.
The clip was uploaded in 2006 and the employees were given six-month
suspended jail sentences in 2010. Google had appealed against the ruling, saying it had removed the video within two hours of being notified by the authorities.
The offending video clip was a mobile phone upload showing four students at a school
in Turin bullying the victim. Prosecutors had highlighted that it had been online for two months despite several users posting comments calling for its removal.
A Google spokesman said:
We're very happy that the
verdict has been reversed and our colleagues' names have been cleared.
Of course, while we're all delighted with the appeal, our thoughts continue to be with the family who have been through the ordeal.
Giovanni Maria Riccio, professor of IT Law at the University of Salerno, described the ruling as a
landmark decision :
Another condemnation for Google would had jeopardised investments of big internet players in Italy and would had a negative impact also on small operators and ISPs [internet service
providers], which are not in the condition of monitoring contents on their service, he told the BBC.
It is a happy news not only for Italy, but for the whole internet.
Italian newspaper La Repubblica reports that the Italian Authority for Communications has passed two resolutions on internet video and internet radio respectively, that classify YouTube, Vimeo and other sites whose content is entirely user generated as
The reasoning is that if a site in any way curates their user generated content, even with automatic algorithms, this amounts to editorial control, and the site should be held to the same rules that apply to Italy's
broadcast television stations. This would subject these sites to a small tax, would require them to take down videos within 48 hours of the request of anyone who feels they have been slandered, and to not broadcast videos unsuitable for children at
certain times of day (whatever that would actually mean for a completely online service).
Most importantly, however, the new resolutions would make YouTube and other sites legally responsible for all of their content.
Italy has been trying
for a while to pin YouTube and Google employees for videos uploaded on to YouTube by parties who had nothing to do with any of the companies' employees.
Another dispute with Google is that Mediaset, a company owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi, is currently suing YouTube in Italian courts for about €500 million because it allowed users to upload copyrighted video taken from their broadcasts.
Three Google executives were convicted in Italy of allowing film of an autistic schoolboy being bullied to be posted online in a ruling that could profoundly change the way in which video clips are put on the internet.
The three Google executives
— David Drummond, senior vice-president and chief legal officer, George Reyes, Google's former chief financial officer, and Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel — were each given a six-month suspended prison sentence, but were cleared of defamation
charges. A fourth defendant, Arvind Desikan, senior product marketing manager, was acquitted.
Alfredo Robledo, the prosecutor, said that he was very satisfied with the verdict in the case, adding: Protection of human beings must prevail
over business logic. Robledo said that the video, which was posted on September 8, 2006, had remained online until November 7 and should have been taken down immediately.
Google said that it would appeal against the ruling. The American
company said that the decision attacked the principles of freedom on which the internet is built. Bill Echikson, a Google spokesman, said: It's the first time a Google employee has been convicted for [violation of] privacy anywhere in the world. It's
an astonishing decision that attacks the principle of freedom of expression.
Italian bloggers also criticised the verdict, with one blogger on the La Stampa website declaring: From today we are less Western and more Chinese.
Sucherman, vice-president of Google and its deputy general counsel for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, conceded that the video was totally reprehensible , but said that Google had taken it down within hours of being notified of it by Italian
police and that none of those convicted had had anything to do with it. He said: They did not appear in it, film it, upload it or review it. None of them know the people involved or were even aware of the video's existence until after it was removed.
Sucherman said that the ruling by the judge, Oscar Magi, meant that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload. If social networks and community bulletin boards were 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.
The Privacy Trial of the Century is already waving jail time at three current Google execs and its former chief financial officer. And now there's an added complaint against the company itself.
In September 2006, someone posted a three-minute
cell-phone video to Google's Italian website in which four Turin teenagers make fun of a classmate with Down's Syndrome. And in July, after two years of investigation, Italian authorities filed criminal charges against four Google execs. The four are
charged with defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data.
The trial of the Google execs was set to begin this week in Milan, but after a short hearing the judge delayed proceeding until February 18. During the hearing, the City
of Milan filed a complaint against Google itself. An Italian legal mind tells the IAPP that local law allows public entities to file for compensation when a claim involves someone with disabilities.
The video in question showed a 17-year-old with
Down's Syndrome as four other 17-year-olds hit him over the head with a box of tissues. It was uploaded on September 8, 2006, and almost a month later, Google received two takedown notices - one from an individual user and one from the Italian Ministry.
The search giant removed the video within a day of receiving the complaints. But Italian authorizes argue that company execs broke the law by allowing the posting in the first place.
Google declined to discuss the trial, but provided the
following statement: As we have repeatedly made clear, our hearts go out to the victim and his family. We are pleased that as a result of our cooperation the bullies in the video have been identified and punished. However, we feel that bringing this
case to court is totally wrong. It's akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post. What's more, seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open internet. We
will continue to vigorously defend our employees in this prosecution.
Google is awaiting confirmation that four employees will face charges in Italy for failing to stop the publishing of a video of a disabled teenager being bullied.
The employees will face charges of defamation and failure to exercise control over
personal data, with court proceedings to start Feb. 3 in Milan.
Prosecutors appear concerned that the video also highlighted the boy's disability, which could run afoul of data protection rules, said Marco Pancini, Google's European public policy
The three-minute video in question depicts four youths harassing a boy with Down's Syndrome and eventually hitting him in the head with a pack of tissues.
It was posted in September 2006 on Google Video, one of the company's video
upload sites. Google removed the video within a day after it received a complaint from the Italian Interior Ministry, which has a department that investigates Internet-related crime. By that time, the video garnered around 12,000 hits.
maintains charges against the employees are unwarranted, Pancini said. Europe's E-commerce Directive exempts service providers from prescreening content before it is publicly posted, he said. Also, the video was technically uploaded to a Google server in
the US, not in Italy, Pancini said.