In an Internet law ruling that is not only the first of its kind, but that may have wide implications – indeed worldwide implications – for Internet law, privacy law, and Google and any other sites that host images, three Google executives have been sentenced to 6 months in prison by an Italian court, over the public posting of a video of a disabled boy with Down’s syndrome being bullied by four other boys, in Turin, Italy. The three convicted Google executives are Google Privacy Director Peter Fleischer, Senior VP David Carl Drummond (formerly director of Google Italy), and George De Los Reyes, a retired Google financial executive.
The video was posted on “Google Videos”, which was Google’s first foray into hosting Internet video, before they turned their attention to – and ultimately acquired – YouTube. Originally appearing on the Google Videos site in September of 2006, it quickly became one of the most frequently viewed videos, and was in the “most viewed videos” section of the Google Videos site until it was removed about two months later.
Authorities in Milan, Italy, became aware of the video when the Down’s Syndrome-focused charity, Viva Down, contacted Milanese police and complained. (Viva Down was mentioned in the video, when one of the bullies made a taunting call to the charity.) The Italian legal authorites argued that the privacy of the boys in the video had been violated, and that Google should have removed the video much sooner.
Charged with violations of privacy, as well as with defamation – along with Google Video Europe executive Arvind Desikan, who was cleared of all charges – Fleischer, Drummond, and De Los Reyes were convicted of violation of privacy, but acquitted of the defamation charges.
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A Google spokesperson has said that they will appeal. “We see this is as a very important question of principle … It’s like the mailman being prosecuted for a letter you don’t like.”
Matt Sucherman, Google’s Deputy General Counsel for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, said that “We are deeply troubled by this conviction. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built.”
Sucherman noted that the video “was totally reprehensible” and added “We took it down within hours of being notified by the Italian police,” as well as helping the local Italian authorities determine who had uploaded it.
If Internet hosting sites are tasked with “vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them – every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video,” says Sucherman, “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,.”
According to Raymond Van Dyke, a technology attorney and partner with the law firm of Merchant and Gold, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi “considers the unfettered Internet a threat, both societally and commercially. … Berlusconi wants everyone who regularly uploads video and content on the Web to first apply for an official license from the Italian government, forcing ISPs to police all content – a form of censorship.”
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“Holding Internet Service Providers criminally liable for all postings, despite a vigorous notice and takedown procedure, is astonishing. The European Union is likely aghast at this conviction and should challenge and overturn this travesty” added Van Dyke.
Fortunately for the three, their prison terms will be suspended under Italian law, which provides that first-time offenders receive an automatic suspension of sentences that are under three years in duration.
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