Italian court decision: an attack on internet freedom

25 Feb 2010

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There has been strong global and local reaction against the controversial decision by an Italian court yesterday to convict three Google executives in connection with a video upload by a Google Video site user in late 2006 depicting a school bullying incident.

It is feared the verdict, though subject to appeal, could have sweeping implications worldwide for internet freedom.

In late 2006, students at a school in Turin, Italy, filmed and then uploaded a video to Google Video that showed them bullying an autistic schoolmate. Google at the time worked with local police to remove the video and have the perpetrators prosecuted.

However, criminal defamation charges and a charge of failing to comply with the Italian privacy code were brought against four Google executives: David Drummond, Arvind Desikan, Peter Fleischer and George Reyes.

Yesterday, a judge in Milan, Italy, convicted Drummond, Fleischer and Reyes for failing to comply with Italian privacy codes.

US embassy responds to conviction of Google execs

The US embassy in Rome issued this statement to Italian media: "We are disappointed by today’s decision sentencing executives of Google, Inc. in connection with the posting of an offensive video on Google.

“While we recognise the reprehensible nature of the material, we disagree that internet service providers are responsible prior to posting for the content uploaded by users. The fundamental principle of internet freedom is vital for democracies which value freedom of expression and is protected by those who value liberty.

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear on 21 January that a free internet is an integral human right that must be protected in free societies. While all nations must guard against abuses, offensive material should not be an excuse to violate this fundamental right,” the Embassy stated.

“In essence, this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload,” said Matt Sucherman, VP and deputy general counsel for Google Europe, Middle East and Africa.

“We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question.”

Sucherman added: “But we are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the internet is built.

“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.”

ALTO’s response to conviction of Google execs

Sucherman’s astonishment was echoed in Ireland by independent telco body ALTO, whose chairman Ronan Lupton said the Italian court decision does violence to the concept of internet freedom.

“"EU law was drafted specifically and carefully to give hosting providers and ISPs protection from liability so long as they remove illegal or defamatory content once notified of its existence,” Lupton explained.

“This ruling appears to do violence to the concept of internet freedom, freedom of expression and privacy rights generally, and goes to the heart of the principles on which the internet has grown and thrived. Today’s court ruling may have far-reaching implications for ISPs and social media sites in Italy,” Lupton said.

By John Kennedy

Photo: The conviction of three Google executives in connection with the posting of a video on Google Video has elicited worldwide reactions with respect to internet freedom

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com