Three Google Executives Convicted of Privacy Violations in Italy

Two weeks after releasing its Buzz social networking tool to a mountain of criticism over privacy concerns, a judge in Milan, Italy found three Google executives guilty of breaking the country's strict privacy code. The case involves a video that was uploaded to Google Video, which showed students bullying and taunting a mentally disabled child.

David Drummond, senior vice president and chief legal officer, George Reyes, former chief financial officer, and Peter Fleischer, chief privacy counsel, were each found guilty and sentenced to six-month prison terms, which were suspended. A fourth Google executive was also charged but cleared of all charges, which included criminal defamation.

The search engine giant said it will "vigorously appeal" the decision, which is reportedly the first privacy conviction for the search engine giant. Google issued a statement early this morning criticizing the judge's decision. "We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question," the statement read. "Throughout this long process, they [Drummond, Reyes, and Fleischer] have displayed admirable grace and fortitude. It is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all."

The incident in question occurred in late 2006 at a school in Turin, Italy. According to Google, students recorded a video that showed them bullying an autistic schoolmate. When notified by Italian authorities about the video, Google quickly removed it " which happened "within hours" of the video being uploaded " and then collaborated with local police to identify the person who posted the video, which Google called "totally reprehensible."

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According to Google's statement, the student who posted the video was sentenced to 10 months of community service along with several other students involved in the bullying episode. "In these rare but unpleasant cases," Google's statement read, "that's where our involvement would normally end."

However, a prosecutor in Milan indicted the four Google executives for both criminal defamation and failure to comply with Italian privacy laws. Fleischer wrote about the privacy case on his personal Blogger page, detailing how he was arrested and also criticizing Italy's strict privacy law.

Google objected to the charges and defended its executives vehemently, but to no avail. "To be clear, none of the four Googlers charged had anything to do with this video," Google's statement read. "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. In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload."

Now Google is arguing that the judge's decision could undermine freedom on the Internet and establish an unreasonable precedent for companies like Google, which would normally be protected by European Union laws. "[W]e are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason," the company's statement read. "It 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. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence."

To make matters even worse for Google in Italy, the country's government is reportedly investigating Google for potential antitrust violations. The antitrust complaints come from media companies concerned that Google dominates too much of the online advertising market.