In February 24, 2010, an Italian court in Milan found three Google executives guilty of violating applicable Italian privacy laws. The executives were accused of violating Italian law by having allowed a video showing an autistic teenager being bullied to be posted online. The Google executives, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, Chief Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer and former Chief Financial Officer George Reyes, were fined and received six-month suspended jail sentences.
The case, which is the first of its kind, was brought by a public prosecutor in Milan and did not involve Italy’s data protection authority, the Garante. It calls into question the interpretation of European privacy laws as it appears to suggest that employees of organizations that provide services such as Google Video and YouTube, may be found criminally responsible for content that users upload, even though they have no control over such content. The case also suggests that hosting and social networking providers may no longer rely on the EU safe harbor that absolves them of liability for the content posted on their websites, provided they remove unlawful content as soon as they are notified of its presence.
Concerns also have been expressed with respect to the impact of the ruling on the principles of freedom on which the Internet was founded, including freedom of speech and freedom of information. Arguably, if hosting and social networking providers are required to screen or vet all content uploaded to their websites, such freedoms are jeopardized, as is the very existence of such organizations. In the words of Richard Thomas, the UK’s former Information Commissioner and Senior Global Privacy Advisor to Hunton & Williams, the case is “ridiculous” and “it is unrealistic to expect firms to monitor everything that goes online.”
Update: The Italian Judge’s full opinion was released April 12, 2010.