Three Google executives where held criminally responsible for an online video of an autistic teen being bullied, in an Italian court this week. The verdict raises concerns that Google, and other Internet content services may be forced to police their content in Italy, and even beyond.
US reaction was nearly unanimous in rejecting the ruling, saying the decision threatens the principle of a free and open Internet. The Europeans however see the decision as protecting a fundamental human right by placing the interests of the individual – in this case the autistic teen – above the rights of a business.
“This is the big principal affirmed by this verdict,” said Milan Prosecutor Alfredo Robledo, “It is fundamental, because a person’s identity is a primary good. If we give that up, anything can happen and that is not OK.”
Google execs convicted of violating Italy’s privacy laws included global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, its senior VP and chief legal officer David Drummond and retired chief financial officer George Reyes. Each was given a six-month suspended sentence. The three were absolved on charges of defamation.
“The judge has decided I’m primarily responsible for the actions of some teenagers who uploaded a reprehensible video to Google video. “If company employees like me can be held criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform when they had absolutely nothing to do with the video in question, then our liability is unlimited,” were Fleisher’s comments.
“This verdict sets a dangerous precedent”. It also “imperils the powerful tool that an open and free Internet has become for social advocacy and change.” Drummond said in a statement.
In the United States, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 generally gives online service providers immunity in cases like this, but no such protections exist in Europe.