Google Trial in Italy Shows Perils of International Business

February 05, 2009 10:28 AM
by Josh Katz
Google executives face jail time in Milan because the company allowed an inappropriate video post, highlighting the tribulations companies face when doing business abroad.

Google Execs Could Be Jailed Over Video

Google’s global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and three other executives went to trial in Milan, Italy, on Tuesday for a clip that appeared on Google Video in 2006 that was considered inappropriate. The prosecutor is charging the executives with defamation and with failing to protect the privacy of a boy, which is a criminal offense in the country that could jail the executives for up to three years, according to the Financial Times. The case has been adjourned until Feb. 18.

In the 2006 video, four students beat up a 17-year-old with Down syndrome. Thousands of users viewed the video and the Italian government complained before Google took it down less than 24 hours after it was posted, MediaPost reports.

Trevor Hughes, the director of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, says the case represents the first time privacy issues are the basis of a criminal complaint against individuals or a company, according to the Financial Times. 

In its comments, Google said: “We feel that bringing this case to court is totally wrong. It’s akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post. What’s more, seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open internet,” according to MediaPost.

Rocco Panetta, a Rome lawyer who focuses on media and privacy issues, said that behavior toward children with disabilities has been a sensitive issue in Italy as of late. “Disability is a very hot topic now in Italy,” he said, according to The New York Times Bits blog. “There is some pressure from public opinion in order to give an exemplary punishment to everybody who wants to use the Internet against minorities such as the disabled and minors.”

“There are cultural sensitivities and consumer expectations at work,” IAPP director Hughes said. “In Europe, privacy is seen as a fundamental human right,” the Financial Times reports.

How the court characterizes Google is a crucial point in the case: is it an Internet service provider or an Internet content provider? In Italy, a service provider only has to remove content deemed illegal after being informed, which Google did. But a content provider can be held responsible for its content, according to The New York Times.

In the United States, the law usually shields companies like Google from criminal charges related to content that users upload. In Europe, the protections are not as strong. According to MediaPost, “In 1997, a German court convicted Compuserve Deutschland head Felix Somm of distributing pornography because customers were able to download child pornography from the service. An appellate court later overturned that finding.”

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Related Topic: China cracks down on Internet companies, including Google

Google has gotten into trouble internationally before, and has plenty of company in that regard.

On Jan. 5, the Chinese government attacked 19 Internet companies for allowing access to pornography. The government released a list of the companies, including Google and Baidu, the two most popular search engines in China, and provided short statements explaining why the companies were culpable. Seven government ministries will be coordinating efforts “to purify the Internet’s cultural environment and protect the healthy development of minors,” reported the International Herald Tribune, quoting a statement posted on an unnamed government-run news site.

Pornography is illegal in China, and the 19 sites “were called out publicly with the apparent goal of getting them to respond more quickly to notifications about problematic content,” Ars Technica said.

Internet companies including Yahoo, Google and Microsoft teamed up with human rights groups in October 2008 to advocate for the Global Network Initiative. The culmination of a two-year effort, the initiative was meant to counteract the attempts by some governments, particularly that of China, to suppress the dissemination of information on the Internet, and to use the Internet to watch their populations.

The Initiative states that privacy is “a human right and guarantor of human dignity,” and the companies that participate in the campaign are supposed to object when a country attempts to seize that right.

Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have faced criticism in recent years for acceding to certain countries’ requests to minimize Internet freedom, and the initiative is seen as their response. Google has been charged with blocking information about democracy and Tiananmen Square on the Internet, for example, at the insistence of the Chinese government, the BBC reported. Observers have named the result of such alliances between the Internet companies and the Chinese government the “Great Firewall of China.”

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