Three execs prosecuted after autism trial

MILAN — Italy lived up to its reputation as Europe’s toughest policer of the Internet on Wednesday when three Google executives were found guilty of invasion of privacy after a video showing a teenager with autism being assaulted appeared on its video-sharing network.

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

Drummond said the verdict set “a dangerous precedent” and meant “every employee of any Internet hosting service faces similar liability.” He said that Italian and European law made clear that “hosting providers like Google are not required to monitor content that they host.”

The executives, none of whom is based in Italy, do not face actual imprisonment as the sentences were suspended, while an appeals process in Italy can take many years.

Observers immediately noted, however, that if Google were forced to screen all content in Italy or elsewhere, before uploading it, the cost would be enormous.

The complaint was brought by Downs Syndrome campaign group ViviDown, and the unnamed boy’s father, after four classmates at a Turin school placed the clip on Google in September 2006, showing the boy being kicked and taunted.

“A company’s rights cannot prevail over a person’s dignity. This sentence sends a clear signal,” said public prosecutor Alfredo Robledo.

But Google called the verdicts “an attack on the fundamental principles of freedom on which the Internet was built.”

Google Italy spokesman Marco Pancini said: “We will appeal against this decision, which we consider surprising, to say the least, since our colleagues had nothing to do with the video in question. They didn’t film it, they didn’t post it and they didn’t see it.”

Censoring of websites has become a hot issue in Italy in recent months, following the setting up of a spate of hate sites. The government considered plans to close pages on YouTube calling for the assassination of media mogul Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the idea was dropped after executives from Facebook, Google and Microsoft agreed to a shared code of conduct rather than legislation.

The decision will hurt the freedom of the web in Italy, said Massimiliano Trovato, a media and telecommunications regulation expert at the Bruno Leoni Institute, adding that it may result in the pre-emptive screening of every web upload.

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