Italian judge explains guilty verdict against Google

Google profited commercially from a video posted in 2006 of an Italian teenager with Down’s Syndrome being bullied in school, according to Judge Oscar Magi.

His statements were contained in the explanation (pdf, italian) of the guilty verdict Magi handed down February 24 in a landmark case against three Google executives for invasion of privacy.

According to Magi, the Internet is not a ‘no man’s land’ where everything is permitted because “laws exist which govern behavior and which establish obligations. And if these obligations are not respected then they result in penal consequences”.

“It is not what is written on a wall that constitutes a crime for the wall’s owners, unless it is exploited commercially,” the judge observed. The criminal intent of the three executives was identified in their purpose of profiting commercially from the video. In the case at hand, the magistrate wrote that this purpose was related to the commercial and operational interaction between Google Italy and Google Video. Google Italy was dealing with the data contained in uploaded videos on Google Video platform and was therefore responsible for them. The Judge referred to conscious acceptance of risk by the diffusion of data, especially sensitive ones, such as the video in question, which should have been given special protection.

The conviction of the three Google executives drew criticism from the United States embassy in Rome which said that “the fundamental principle of freedom on the Internet is vital for democracy”.

A similar argument was used by Google when it announced it would appeal a sentence it saw as “an attack on the fundamental principles of freedom on which the Internet was built”.

Magi also responds to the critics, writing: “It does not seem to this court to have significantly altered the legal parameters that governed the decision” in similar cases. “In any case – it can be read – this judge, like everyone else, is waiting for a ‘good law’ on this subject.”

The trial was the first anywhere against executives of the Internet search engine company and was seen as having implications for the way Google operates in Italy and for the wider debate over freedom of speech and legal responsibility for Internet postings.

Former Google Italy president David Carl Drummond, now senior vice president, was given a six-month suspended jail term along with George De Los Reyes, a retired former Google Italy board member, and Peter Fleitcher, Google Europe’s privacy strategy chief.

Under Italian law the three are entitled to two automatic appeals.

The three, for whom prosecutors had asked a year’s term, were found guilty of invasion of privacy.

At the time of the ruling, prosecutors said they were “satisfied” because “business freedom can never neglect safeguards for human dignity, as this trial demonstrated”.

They argued that “this was never a trial on Web freedom as some (experts) said”.

From the outset, Google expressed puzzlement over the case and said the decision to take it to trial was ”difficult to understand” and it set a ”worrying precedent”.

In the smartphone footage, posted on September 8, 2006 and removed on November 7, 2006, the boy was seen being taunted, insulted and kicked by one student in particular as others looked on. The location appeared to be a classroom and the people visible appeared to be about 16 years of age. The video was posted in Google Italy’s ‘Most Fun Videos’ section and got 5,500 hits in its two months on the Web.

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