Internet freedom advocates recoiled at an Italian court's conviction of three Google executives for privacy violations on Wednesday (Feb. 24, 2010).
Judge Oscar Magi sentenced David Drummond, Google's senior vice president and chief legal counsel, Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel, and George Reyes, a former chief financial officer, each to six-month suspended sentences, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported.
At issue was Google's hosting of a video showing four Turin teenagers abusing a young man with Down Syndrome. Google removed the video after law enforcement alerted them of the content, but by that time the video had been on the site for two months, according to media reports.
"Internet freedom defenders had been expecting the worst for months, and Judge Oscar Magi didn't disappoint," the Committee's blog said.
Though the executives had no personal connection to the video posting, the court held them accountable for it.
The suit against Google was brought by Vivi Down, a non-profit group that defends people with Down Syndrome. The case hinged on a concept called "intermediary liability", which extends criminal liability to third parties, regardless of their direct involvement.
The ruling extends TV licensing requirements to online video sites, and would require Google to pre-screen all content for compliance with the law.
Google's YouTube is the world's largest source of user-generated video, and its users upload more than 20 hours of video per minute, according the official YouTube blog. Policing all that content is an impossible task, the Committee insisted, and it threatens the protections that Web platforms currently enjoy.
Richard Thomas, former information commissioner for the U.K., told BBC News that the ruling is ridiculous, and amounts to prosecuting the post office for delivering hate mail.
"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," said CPJ.
"This has provided a safe harbor for free speech and Web innovation to flourish."
Judge Magi's ruling makes social-media sites, instead of government, responsible for reviewing hosted content for compliance. This could prompt Internet corporate executives to overreact and to excessively restrict content.
"The ruling also has another unfortunate consequence," said the CPJ. "It allows authoritarian regimes around the world to point to a European Union member country as an example of how to control the Internet."
Google has said it will appeal the ruling.