David Drummond is one of three Google executives given a suspended prison term. (Reuters)
David Drummond is one of three Google executives given a suspended prison term. (Reuters)

Chilling Google verdict in Italy

Italy was already the Internet freedom bad boy among western European democracies with its plans to extend broadcast TV licensing requirements to video sites. But the conviction today by a Milan judge of three Google executives is more than a one-off case of antisocial cyber behavior. It could end the protection that Web platforms now enjoy for user posted content. Potentially, that would mean that every video posted on the company’s YouTube site would have to be pre-screened for compliance with the law. That’s impossible for a site that is uploading almost a day’s worth of video every minute worldwide.

Internet freedom defenders had been expecting the worst for months, and Judge Oscar Magi didn’t disappoint. He gave six-month suspended prison sentences to David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president and chief legal officer, Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel, and George Reyes, a former chief financial officer. 

They were found guilty of invading the privacy of a disabled student in 2006 by hosting a video on Google Video, since superseded by YouTube, showing four Turin teenagers bullying their classmate.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.