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Three Google executives have been sentenced to six months in prison by an Italian court for invasion of privacy. Their case relates to a 2006 video that showed abuse of an autistic teenager.
Google has called the verdict a threat to internet freedom
A Milan court found three Google executives guilty of invasion of privacy on Wednesday in a case that, if upheld, could have radical implications on Internet freedom and video hosting.
In addition to the six-month suspended sentence for the three defendants, Judge Oscar Magi ordered Google to pay a fine and the Italian press to publish the decision. He rejected additional charges of defamation.
The three defendants convicted in the trial were David Drummond, chairman of the board of Google Italy at the time the video was uploaded; George De Los Reyes, a board member who has since left Google; and Peter Fleischer, then responsible for privacy issues.
The court acquitted a fourth defendant, Arvind Desikan, who was in charge of Google Video at the time.
Peter Fleischer was one of the defendants named in the case
Google spokesman Bill Echikson called the verdict "astonishing" and said the company would appeal the decision.
"None of these four people had anything to do with the video," Echikson told reporters. "They didn't film it, they didn't upload it, they didn't review it. Nonetheless they were held criminally responsible."
Echikson added that if Google is made responsible for vetting each video, "then the web as we know it will cease to exist."
The video in question shows students an Italian school bullying an autistic teenager as more than a dozen others stand by and watch.
It was filmed and uploaded to Google Video in late 2006, and remained on the site for about two months before being taken down by Google.
Italian advocacy group Vivi Down, which along with the boy's father brought on the case, claimed Google was slow in responding to comments that the video should be removed. The plaintiffs eventually dropped out of the case, but the Italian court decided to continue prosecution.
Nick Lockett, senior partner at the London-based legal firm DL Legal, said he thought the case would have an enormous impact on all social media sites and outstanding data protection claims against them.
Lockett says the verdict could affect how other websites approach data protection
"Lots of people have posted videos which clearly have privacy implications that may well now have to be reviewed," Locket told Deutsche Welle. "I think Google are absolutely right that this is going to highlight a move towards restriction of what can freely be distributed."
Lockett added that the case underlines problems with the European Union's Data Protection Directive, which was meant to ensure companies in the EU could operate under the same rules in all EU member states. In practice, he said, interpretation of the directive has varied from state to state.
"Most multi-nationals have had to vet their operations in each individual European country, because the rules for enforcement are slightly different," he said. "And that is a huge regulatory cost for multi-national businesses.
In a parallel story, the European Commission confirmed Wednesday that it was reviewing allegations of antitrust against Google.
Three European internet companies filed complaints to the EU executive body. A blog post by Google named them as UK-based price comparison website Foundem, French legal search engine ejustice.fr and the Microsoft subsidiary Ciao from Bing.
They claim Google intentionally moved down their websites in search engine results. Google has denied breaking any laws and said it would cooperate with regulators.
Author: Andrew Bowen
Editor: Nancy Isenson