In what could be a legal decision having wide implications around the world, an Italian judge on Wednesday held three Google executives criminally responsible for an online video of an autistic teenager being bullied.
The charges stemmed from a 2006 video posted on Google Video, thevideo-sharing service Google ran before acquiring YouTube.
The footage showed an autistic student being pushed, pummeled with objects, including a pack of tissues, and insulted by classmates, who called him a “mongoloid.”
The prosecutor based a large amount of the case on that the video was viewed 5,500 times over the two months it was online, had over 80 comments (certainly not much by internet standards) and made it to the top of Google Italy’s “most entertaining” video.
Google argued that it was unaware of the offensive material and acted swiftly to remove it after being notified by authorities, taking the video down within two hours.
Those convicted of violating Italy’s privacy laws 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. They were given six-month suspended sentences.
Google called the decision “astonishing,” saying it “attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built.”
Although the government agreed that the executives had no role in creating or uploading the video, they were held liable under Italian law as officers of the company.
“If company employees like me can be held criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform when they had absolutely nothing to do with the video in question, then our liability is unlimited,” he said in a statement.
Drummond said he was “outraged” that he was found criminally responsible for the video, noting that both European Union and Italian law recognized that Internet service providers like Google are not required to monitor content that they host.
“This verdict sets a dangerous precedent,” Drummond said in a statement from Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. It also “imperils the powerful tool that an open and free Internet has become for social advocacy and change.”
The US has a federal law which specifically bars criminal liability in this situation, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 however no such protections exist in Europe or in other places around the globe.
If executives of YouTube.com or any site can be held criminally liable for every video uploaded by users to the site, they are going to be spending a lot of time in courts around the world.