They were found guilty of invading the privacy of a disabled student in 2006 by hosting a video on Google Video, since superseded by YouTube, showing four Turin teenagers bullying their classmate. The video remained up for about two months but Google says it took it down when notified by law enforcement.
The case was brought by the Milan prosecutor and Vivi Down, a nongovernmental organization that defends people with Down syndrome.
The three Google employees, who had nothing to do with the video, were acquitted of criminal defamation charges. Google says it plans to appeal the privacy violation convictions.
The court case goes to the heart of an issue troubling Internet freedom advocates—intermediary liability. It sounds bland and lawyerly but this is a concept fraught with danger for online expression.
The law in the European Union and the United States protects carriers and platforms from content posted by third parties, subject to certain conditions such as removing illegal content when notified. This has provided a safe harbor for free speech and Web innovation to flourish.
The Italian ruling calls this protection into question. It could mean that every piece of content would have to be reviewed before it was posted to social media sites in Italy. It would shift the onus of pre-screening or censorship from the government to the Internet provider. Faced with the possibility of jail time or fines, corporate executives are likely to err on the side of over-filtering content.
The ruling also has another unfortunate consequence for press freedom defenders. It allows authoritarian regimes around the world to point to a European Union member country as an example of how to control the Internet.