Jail sentences handed down in Italy to three Google
executives have major implications for freedom on the Internet, because the
court’s ruling makes the hosts of online content criminally liable for material
posted by other people.
The Google executives received six-month suspended jail
sentences in absentia for violating the privacy of a mentally handicapped boy,
whose bullying in Turin by four other boys was captured on video and posted on
Google Video in Italy.
Google removed the clip within 24 hours of receiving
complaints, but the Italian court found that it was an Internet content provider,
and therefore liable under the same Italian law the covers newspapers and
broadcasting. The Google executives were cleared of other charges of
Matt Sucherman, Google's European vice president and deputy
general counsel, said in a blog post that the Google employees had nothing to
do with the offending video. “They did not appear in it, film it, upload it or
review it. None of them know the people involved or were even aware of the
video's existence until after it was removed,” he said.
“In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting
platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users
upload.” Sucherman said it was “outrageous” that the case went to trial at all,
and the decision would be appealed. The conviction, he said, “attacks the very
principles of freedom on which the Internet is built”.
“Common sense dictates that only the person who films and
uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect
the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming,” Sucherman
said. “European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a
safe harbour from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they
are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a
notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and
support free speech while protecting personal privacy.
“If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger,
YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are
held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to
them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web
as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political
and technological benefits it brings could disappear.”