Google employees convicted by Italian court

February 25, 2010 | 10:33

Tags: #bullying #google-privacy #italy #privacy #video #youtube

Companies: #google

Google has vowed to defend its employees following a conviction of failure to adhere to Italian privacy codes and accusations of criminal defamation as a result of a video uploaded to its Google Video service.

According to the official Google Blog, the company was informed by the Italian police that it was hosting a video of students at a school in Turin bullying a classmate suffering from autism - a video the company describes as "totally reprehensible" in nature. According to Google, the video was removed from the site "within hours of being notified by Italian police," while the company also "worked with the local police to help identify the person responsible for uploading it to Google Video."

The result of the investigation was that the woman responsible was sentenced to ten months community service, while other individuals identified from the video footage received similar sentences. So far, it's business-as-usual for a video hosting company.

Where the story takes a turn for the strange is in the decision by a public prosecutor to indict four Google employees with charges of criminal defamation and a failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. The four employees - named as David Drummond, Avind Desikan, Peter Fleischer, and George Reyes - are described by Google as not having "anything to do with the video [...] 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."

Despite this - and despite the fact that George Reyes left the company back in 2008 - a court in Milan has convicted three of the four defendants on charges of failing to comply with privacy laws, with only Arvind Desikan avoiding a guilty verdict. All four employees have been found not guilty on the charges of criminal defamation.

Matt Sucherman, vice president and deputy general counsel for the company's EMEA operations, describes the company as "deeply troubled" by what it claims is an attack "on the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built." Claiming that "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," Sucherman points out that "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" - a provision which appears to have failed to protect the company and its employees in this instance.

Sucherman believes that without this safe harbour provision protecting content hosters, "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 — [and] then the Web as we know it will cease to exist," along with "many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings."

Describing the decision as "astonishing" and stating that "the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question [...] it is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all," Google has vowed to appeal the convictions in order to clear its employees' names - and to clarify the safe harbour provision for future cases.

Do you believe Google - and its employees as individuals - should be held responsible for all content uploaded to its sites, or should the fact that the company took the file down once notified and helped with the subsequent investigation of those responsible for the abuse have protected it? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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