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Italy Convicts Google Execs on Privacy Invasion Charges, Revisits Dark Ages

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Three Google execs have been convicted on charges of privacy violation in an Italian court, based on a horrid schoolkid bullying clip on YouTube. Though the video is shocking, it's the Italian legal system that's truly appalling.

Google's own blog describes what occurred: In 2006, some school students in Turin bullied a schoolmate, suffering from autism according to Google. This was terrible enough, but these bullies also filmed the event, and uploaded it to YouTube. The Italian police became involved, and notified Google officially about the offending clip—it was taken "down within hours." Google's team then cooperated with the police to identify the perpetrators, and the data was subsequently key in convicting the female uploader, who received 10 months community service as a penalty, along with other involved male students. Google notes that "in these rare but unpleasant cases, that's where [their] involvement would end."

Not so here though, as a public prosecutor in Milan decided that Google's execs were at fault, and brought a case of criminal defamation and breaching of Italian privacy laws. All four were just cleared of criminal defamation, but three—David Drummond, Peter Fleischer, George Reyes—were found guilty of privacy code violations, and face a six month jail sentence. Google plans to "vigorously appeal."

None of the three were responsible for the act portrayed in the video, none of them filmed it, uploaded it, or reviewed the clip on-site. When Google became aware of the offending footage among its millions upon millions of global video clips, a totally different set of Google employees (among the thousands inside the company) reacted with admirable speed, and did what independent observers may well see as "exactly the right thing."

But Italy's legal system has still seen fit to find the execs guilty. It's akin to the Catholic church prosecuting the makers of the paper that Galileo's offending publication about heliocentricity was printed on. Around the world we're used to the glacial pace of legal advances trailing the cutting edge of technology by years, but this case resurrects nasty memories of the dark ages.

And there's more intrigue here too. Google's blog quite clearly presents the poor victim at the heart of the affair as suffering from autism. But Reuters, reporting on the matter, notes that the the youth concerned had Down syndrome, and that the legal case was brought at the request of the victim's father and an Italian advocacy group for Down syndrome sufferers, Vivi Down. Did Google just blot its copybook by misrepresenting the facts of the case?

Irrespective of that issue, it seems it's the Italian courts that are to be blamed here. There are serious implications, in terms of legal precedent, for future cases of liability of online content providers for content their users upload. This is a situation which puts Italy's legal system in head-on collision with the way a tech-savvy, socially-networked society is moving. The Italian sentence may also be in violation of European Union laws protecting content broadcasters from liability, if they remove offending content swiftly (as Google did here.) And it's the latest case of seeming wrong-headedness in Italian law concerning the forced regulation of Web-based video content. Recent legal maneuvers in Italy on these matters have been roundly condemned in the rest of Europe, since the country's billionaire Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, owns Italy's major private TV network along with other media interests. Is this latest Google case merely another move in a highly questionable game?

[Via Google, Reuters]