Google Will Appeal Employee Convictions in Italian Court

Google plans on appealing the convictions of three of its employees in Italian court, after a judge in Milan ruled that the search-engine giant was responsible for a 2006 video clip, posted to Google Video's Italian site, showing three Turin high school students bullying a teenager with Down syndrome. Google is arguing that the Italian legal system holding a neutral hosting platform liable for user content represents a threat to the fundamental concept of a free and open Internet. All three Google employees received prison sentences of up to six months, although reports indicate that those sentences will likely be suspended.

Google plans to appeal the conviction of three of its employees in an Italian privacy-invasion case, according to the company's official blog, which also railed against Judge Oscar Magi's Feb. 24 ruling as possibly detrimental to Internet freedom.

At issue in the case was whether a 191-second video of four Turin high school students bullying a teenager with Down syndrome, posted to Google Video's Italian site in September 2006, was ultimately Google's responsibility to police and remove. While Google removed that video and issued a public statement expressing sympathy with the victim, Milan public prosecutor Francesco Cajani argued that the search-engine giant nonetheless faced criminal liability for allowing the video onto the site, which no longer exists.

The Google employees convicted of invasion of privacy include Chief Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer, former Chief Financial Officer George Reyes, and Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond. All men face six-month sentences. A fourth defendant, Senior Product Marketing Manager Arvind Desikan, was acquitted by the court.

The three convicted employees were acquitted of criminal defamation charges, which would have carried heavier legal penalties.

"In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload," Matt Sucherman, Google's vice president and deputy general counsel for Europe, Middle East and Africa, wrote in a Feb. 24 posting on the Official Google Blog. "We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question."

Sucherman then took broader issue with the Milan court's ruling. "It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built," he wrote, adding that if hosting platforms are held responsible for evaluating all uploaded content at risk of criminal sanction, "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."

In February 2009, as the case gathered steam, Google argued that attempting to convict its employees for material users posted to its sites was equivalent to prosecuting postal service employees for hate-speech letters sent via regular post. Moreover, it said in a Feb. 2 statement, "seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open Internet."

According to the Website of the United States Diplomatic Mission to Italy, proceedings in Italian courts of appeal can drag on for between two and three years. Online reports from The Wall Street Journal and other sources seemed to indicate that the Italian legal system suspends sentences of less than three years, making extradition and jail time an unlikely proposition for the Google employees.