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An Italian court convicted three Google executives of privacy violations on Wednesday because they did not act quickly enough to remove an online video that showed sadistic teenage bullies pummelling and mocking an autistic boy.
The case was being closely watched around the world due to its implications for internet freedom.
In the first such criminal trial of its kind, judge Oscar Magi sentenced the three in absentia to a six-month suspended sentence and absolved them of defamation charges. A fourth defendant, charged only with defamation, was acquitted.
Google called the decision “astonishing”. “We will appeal this astonishing decision,” Google spokesman Bill Echikson said at the courthouse. “We are deeply troubled by this decision. It attacks the principles of freedom on which the internet was built.”
Those convicted were Google’s global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, its senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond and retired chief financial officer George Reyes. Senior product marketing manager Arvind Desikan, based in London, was acquitted. All four had denied wrongdoing.
The verdict could help define whether the internet in Italy—and perhaps beyond—is an open, self-regulating platform or if content must be better monitored for abusive material. It comes as Google already is facing regulatory challenges in Italy, where a draft bill would require internet sites to control content the same way television stations do. Google has lobbied for changes to the bill.
Google had called the trial a threat to freedom on the internet because it could force providers to attempt an impossible task—pre-screening the thousands of hours of footage uploaded every day onto sites like YouTube.
Prosecutors had insisted the case wasn’t about censorship but about balancing the freedom of expression with the rights of an individual.
The charges were sought by Vivi Down, an advocacy group for people with Down syndrome. The group alerted prosecutors to the 2006 video showing an autistic student in Turin being pushed, pummelled with items, and insulted by bullies at school, who called him a “mongoloid” in a mock telephone call to Vivi Down.
Google Italy, which is based in Milan, said it took down the video two hours after being notified by police, as is required by law. Prosecutors argued that viewers had flagged it well before police contacted Google, and the fact that it shot to the top of a “most entertaining videos” list on the Italian site, had 5,500 views and 800 comments during the two months it was online meant it should have been noticed sooner. AP
Three Google executives were convicted on Wednesday in Milan of ‘violating privacy’ by allowing a video of an autistic Italian schoolboy being physically and verbally abused to be posted online
The verdict sparked concerns that the internet in its current open, self-regulating avatar might be under attack
In another setback on Wednesday for Google, the European Commission in Brussels said it had asked Google to comment on allegations by rivals that it demotes their sites in its search rankings