An Italian court has convicted Google’s global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, senior VP and chief legal counsel David Drummond, and retired CFO George Reyes for privacy violation for failing to act quickly enough to take down an Internet video that showed teens beating and mocking an autistic boy. The case is the first such criminal prosecution of its kind, and was being watched carefully by the worldwide legal community for the potential precedent it might set for Internet operators and social media companies that distribute user-generated content. The executives have been sentenced in absentia to a six-months suspended sentence. The three were absolved of related charges of defamation; a fourth Google executive named in the case was acquitted.
Google has characterized the decision as “astonishing” and vows to vigorously appeal the decision. “To be clear, none of the four Googlers charged had anything to do with this video,” wrote Google VP and deputy general counsel for the EMEA region Matt Sucherman, in a statement. “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.”
In the United States, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 generally shields Internet service providers and service operators from being prosecuted in cases of this kind; however, not comparable statues exist in Europe. However, both the European Union and Italian law have recognized that Internet service providers are not required to monitor and censor content that they host.
Google has characterized the trial—and its outcome—as a threat to Internet freedom because it could force service providers to prescreen all content for potential legal liability before making it available to the public, effectively bringing down a heavy curtain of censorship on what has widely been hailed as a democratizing media.
The charges in the case were brought by Vivi Down, an advocacy group for people with Down syndrome—although the victim in this case was autistic. The video showed an autistic student in Turin being pushed, beaten, harassed, and insulted by teenage bullies at his school. The video was posted to Google’s video service in 2006, prior to the company’s acquisition of YouTube. Google Italy took down the video within two hours of being notified by police; however, the video was accessible to the public for a period of about two months, and received more than 5,000 views and 800 comments, and was even listed as a “most entertaining” video.
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