Conviction of Google Execs Alarms Privacy Advocates

An Italian's judge's decision today to impose a six-month suspended jail sentence on Google 's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, and two other company executives over a video showing the bullying of a disabled teenager has evoked outrage in the privacy community.

Privacy advocates in the U.S and Europe called the sentence extremely troubling and said it creates a dangerous precedent. The case is believed to be the first time a privacy executive has been held accountable for his firm's actions.

Italian Judge Oscar Magi in Milan imposed the sentence and fines for Fleischer, Google's chief legal officer David Drummond and George Reyes, a former Google board member. The three executives and a fourth Google officer had also been charged with criminal defamation, but were found innocent by the judge.

The case arose from the posting of a video on Google's Italian Web site in September 2006 that showed the bullying of an autistic boy by a group of teenagers in Turin. Under European law, ISPs are not responsible for third-party content, but are required to remove any content considered offensive if someone complains about it.

Google received two complaints about the three-minute video, including one from the Italian Interior Ministry, and promptly took it down less than 24 hours after it was posted.

In a blog post today, Matt Sucherman, Google's vice president and deputy general counsel for Europe, Middle East and Africa, noted that the company had worked with law enforcement authorities in Italy to help identify who had uploaded the video. "In these rare but unpleasant cases, that's where our involvement would normally end," Sucherman wrote.

The fact that the executives were still charged with violating Italy's privacy laws -- and convicted -- "sets a troubling precedent," said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the International Association of Privacy Professional (IAPP). What makes it especially troublesome is the fact that the video -- like other Google videos -- was posted almost certainly without the direct knowledge or consent of Fleischer or any of the other executives, he said.

"None of the individuals had any idea what was happening. None of them had acted either affirmatively or passively," to upload the video, he said. To hold them directly responsible "raises troubling questions about the liability of privacy professionals, and, really, any employee...about who is liable when user generated content is produced online."

Richard Thomas, the former Information Commissioner of the United Kingdom, called the decision "ridiculous," because it "brings privacy laws into disrepute.

"I cannot conceive that a similar case would result in a similar sentence in the U.K.," said Williams who is currently an advisor to the law firm of Hunton & William's Centre for Information Policy Leadership in London. "It seems to me very strange to convict individual directors who have nothing to do with the posting of the video."

He said it's interesting that the prosecution came not from Italy's data privacy and data protection authority, but from criminal prosecutors. "The body which is the specialist in privacy laws was not the prosecuting body," he said. "This conviction was secured in the name of privacy laws, but it was not brought by the privacy authority." He also said he hopes this would be a "one-off case."

Rocco Panetta, a partner with Italian law firm Studio Panetta & Associati in Rome, said it is important to understand the motivation behind the sentence before criticizing it. Though it's uncommon to have this kind of a punishment over a privacy violation, Italian data protection laws allow for it, Panetta said. The judge imposed essentially the minimum sentence available under the law for the kind of privacy violation Google executives were charged with.

The judge might have hoped to spark a "new discussion around the problem of free uploading of video with any controls or filters," Panetta said. "The problem here is we have an issue that is wider than the Google case."

The underlying issue is what kind of rules need to be in place to ensure that the right to free speech online doesn't infringe on privacy rights, he said. "That debate will be more important than the punishment in this case," he said.

Panetta added that it is certain that none of the executives who have been sentenced today will actually serve jail time.

Google's Sucherman, meanwhile, noted in his blog that the company will appeal this "astonishing" verdict. "In essence, this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload," he said. "It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built," he noted.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld . Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Knowledge Center.

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