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Italy Convicts Three Google Executives Over Bullying Video

Bill Echikson, Google's senior communication's manager, described the verdict as "an astonishing decision that attacks the principle of freedom of expression."
(RFE/RL) -- An Italian court has convicted three senior executives of the Internet company Google on "violation of privacy" charges because of a video that was posted online from Italy showing an autistic school boy being abused.

Each of the executives received a six-month suspended sentence for failing to comply with Italy's privacy code. They are David Drummond, who was chairman of the board of Google Italy at the time; George De Los Reyes, then a board member who has since left the firm; and Peter Fleischer, who was responsible for privacy issues.

The three were acquitted of criminal defamation charges. A fourth executive who was in charge of Google's video section at the time, Arvind Desikan, was acquitted of all charges.

The trial has been closely watched for how it might affect the balance between the rights of individuals and Internet freedom.

The case stems from an incident in Turin, Italy, in late 2006 when several students were bullying an autistic schoolmate. Video of the abuse was recorded by a student using a mobile phone and was uploaded to Google Video.

The clip remained on Google Video for two months and was viewed by so many people that it eventually was listed at the top of the site's "most-viewed" list.

Google says it took the video down immediately when notified about its contents by Italian police. But by that time, the footage had stirred a national outcry in Italy -- leading to the suspension of the bullying students from the school.

Prosecutors today in Turin successfully argued that Google violated the autistic student's privacy rights under Italian law by displaying the video for so long to so many people.

Prosecutor Alfredo Robledo says Google should have noticed the reprehensible contents of the video sooner and taken it down from the site as it was climbing up the "most-viewed" list.

"We think this verdict makes a clear statement on the relationship between the rights of business enterprise -- because that is what Google is about -- and the defense of human dignity, which we think must always prevail," Robledo said.

'Internet Freedom At Stake'

But Bill Echikson, Google's senior communication's manager, described the verdict as "an astonishing decision that attacks the principle of freedom of expression." Echikson said Google's attorneys already are preparing an appeal.

"We are going to appeal this decision because we believe that it poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the Internet is built," Echikson said. "None of these three employees had anything to do with this video. They didn't upload it. They didn't film it. They didn't review it and yet they have been found guilty."

Echikson argued that Google executives cannot be held responsible for the content of every text, image, and video posted by users to its websites. He said the appeals court should examine the bigger issue of how the ruling will impact freedom of expression on the Internet.

"If this is left to stand, we believe that it would threaten the very freedom that the Internet has brought about, that sites like Blogger and YouTube, if they are held responsible for vetting every video, then the freedom that we know, the web we know will cease to exist," Echikson said.

"These are important points of principle and that is why we are going to appeal and support our employees all the way."

Google Vice President Matt Sucherman -- who serves as the firm's deputy general counsel for Europe, the Middle East and Africa -- said it was "outrageous" the Google executives were subjected to a trial at all.

In a statement posted on Google's corporate blog after today's ruling, Sucherman argued that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform can take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming.

Sucherman said European Union law was drafted specifically to give Internet hosting providers "a safe harbor from liability" so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. He said today's ruling by the Turin court threatened many of the economic, social, political, and technological benefits that the Internet brings.

with agency reports