Judge Delays Google Italian Privacy Violation Trial

Three years after a user posted a video to Google's Italian site showing a Down syndrome teenager being terrorized by fellow students, four Google executives are facing individual criminal charges. The executives face three-year prison sentences for defamation and failing to properly control content on the Google site. Google executives charged in the case include David C. Drummond, Google's senior vice president and chief counsel; Peter Fleischer, the search giant's global privacy counsel; former Google Chief Financial Officer George Reyes; and a fourth, unidentified former executive who worked at Google Video in London.

Four Google executives are facing criminal charges in Italy for allegedly defaming a Turin teenager with Down syndrome and failing to exercise editorial control over information posted to Google. None of the executives charged were directly involved in handling the Italian video. All face up to 36 months in prison.
The trial was originally set to begin Feb. 3 but the judge in the case before the Criminal Court of Milan announced Feb. 3 the case has been postponed until Feb. 18 due to scheduling issues.
The defendants include David C. Drummond, Google's senior vice president and chief counsel; Peter Fleischer, the search giant's global privacy counsel; former Google Chief Financial Officer George Reyes; and a fourth, unidentified former executive who worked at Google Video in London.
In Fleischer's case, he is thought to be the first privacy official to face criminal sanctions for his company's actions, according to the IAPP (International Association of Privacy Professionals).
The video in question was originally posted to Google's Italian site in September 2006. The video shows four teenagers harassing a student with Down syndrome. The three-minute video also shows the four teenagers striking the Down syndrome student with a box of tissues. Complaints about the video were not received until Nov. 6, 2006, and Google removed the video the next day.
As far as Google was concerned, the matter was closed, but Milan public prosecutor Francesco Cajani contended that by simply allowing the 191-second video on its site, Google faced criminal liability. What followed was a two-year investigation that led to the charges against the Google executives.
"The big distinction here is the difference under Italian law between Internet service providers and Internet content providers," Trevor Hughes, the IAPP's executive director, told eWEEK in a telephone interview from London.
Under Italian law, Internet service providers are not responsible for third-party content, but they must remove objectionable material if complaints are received. Content providers such as Google, however, are responsible for all posted content.
"Google is arguing that it is an Internet service provider and the Italians are arguing Google is a content provider," Hughes said. "It is important to remember that these are legal definitions under Italian law and not necessarily the same definitions we might think of under U.S. laws."
American laws provide for a legal safe harbor for Internet content providers as they do for Internet service providers. As long as a U.S. Internet service or content provider removes objectionable content, neither is held liable for the actual content of the posting.
A broader European Union rule provides the same safe harbor protection for content providers as Internet service providers but, apparently, Italy has not embraced or approved the EU rule.
"What's really striking is the individual criminal charges brought for actions taken by the company," Hughes said. "What happened was a complete surprise to everyone. Violations of data protection laws is a very, very new field."
Google issued a statement Feb. 2 sharply critical of the Italian prosecutions.
"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," Google said. "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 declined to comment further.
Hughes added that the IAPP, which originally posted news of the trial beginning Feb. 3, has been overwhelmed by the response. "We're a relatively small professional association and we might get 20,000 hits a month. Once our story ran, we've had more than 100,000 hits."