Italy's Google Verdict Starts Debate on Web Freedom

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Paolo Bona / Reuters

Bill Echikson, senior manager of communications at Google, speaks to the media after an Italian court passed a suspended six-month jail sentence for three Google executives in Milan on Feb. 24, 2010

It was one of those Internet links that triggers the same morbid instinct that makes motorists slow down to stare at a highway accident scene: "Bullying: disabled boy abused in school." The three-minute clip, which was posted to the Google Video platform in 2006, showed four youths in the Italian city of Torino teasing an autistic classmate and throwing tissues at him. At least 12,000 people clicked on the video before Google took it down following a formal complaint from the Italian Interior Ministry.

On Wednesday, a Milan judge convicted three Google executives of privacy violation for not blocking the video from the site. The officials — senior vice president and top legal officer David Drummond, chief privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and former chief financial officer George Reyes — each received a suspended six-month jail sentence. The ruling, which Google said it would appeal, has sparked a vigorous debate about the free flow of information and the legal responsibility of Web-platform companies to monitor the type of material that is posted to their sites.

In a statement, Google reacted angrily to the verdict, calling it an "astonishing decision ... that attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built." The California-based search-engine giant, which owns YouTube, also said, "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." Google further claimed that European Union law gives hosting providers a "safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence."

The company also had its share of defenders online. A comment posted on Twitter by a Rhode Island filmmaker named Salim Makhlouf summed up the sentiment of many Web users: "Italy needs to catch up with the times of open networks and get off Google's back." Some bloggers compared the verdict to convicting postal workers for delivering hate mail. And in an unusual step, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, David Thorne, entered the fray, saying Washington was "disappointed" by the ruling, which he called a threat to Internet freedom. "While all nations must guard against abuses, offensive material should not be an excuse to violate this fundamental right," Thorne said in a statement.

Although the judge's written ruling has not yet been issued, the facts of the case appear to revolve around how rapidly Google responded to complaints about the video. The clip was posted Sept. 8, 2006, and was removed from the site nearly two months later in direct response to a government request. But prosecutors argued that individual viewers had sent written complaints about the video for weeks before it was taken down.

Luca Sofri, a Milan-based journalist and author of, one of Italy's most popular blogs, says that even though Google and other Web-sharing platforms attempt to strike the right balance between allowing information to flow freely on the Internet and respecting individuals' rights, they still have a responsibility for what's posted on their sites. "As Spider-Man says, 'With great power comes great responsibility.' Allowing freedom of opinion does not mean you can be a platform for people to defame others or violate their privacy," Sofri says.

Still, he suspects that the case is also an example of how out of touch Italian political leaders and magistrates are with the massive changes in the way information circulates online. "They are judging the Internet with the same instruments of the past," Sofri notes. "The Web creates situations that are completely new and don't have paragons with the world before. If these incidents are happening all over the world and Italy is the only country to condemn Google for it, maybe there's something we haven't understood."

Indeed, the verdict is just the latest in a series of clashes between Italian authorities and advocates of Internet freedom. The Interior Ministry has repeatedly attempted to shut down politically incendiary Facebook pages, and the government has also backed a measure requiring that anyone who uploads videos to the Internet have a license — a move critics say is an attempt by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns Italy's main private TV network, to maintain control of the distribution of video content.

The two prosecutors in the Google case, however, said the verdict highlights the fact that certain values should endure regardless of technological innovation. "We are very satisfied, because by means of this trial we have posed a serious problem: that is to say, the protection of human beings, which must prevail over corporate interests," they said in a statement. Marco Bardazzi, a senior editor at the Torino daily La Stampa and co-author of a recent book about the Internet revolution, said the Italian case could mark a symbolic crossroads for Google, which was founded with the mission statement "Don't be evil." "Maybe the moment has arrived for [the company] and all of us to ask if the mission hasn't somehow been betrayed," Bardazzi wrote on his blog this week. "Or perhaps, it was a bit naive to begin with."