In the second hit of a one-two punch in Europe, an Italian court handed out guilty verdicts on Wednesday for three of four Google employees charged in a case concerning a 2006 Google Video clip posted of a teenager with autism.
The judge in the case, Oscar Magi, gave suspended six-month jail sentences for privacy invasion to David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer; Peter Fleischer, Google's chief privacy counsel; and George Reyes, Google's former chief financial officer. They weren't convicted on defamation charges, though, and a fourth Google employee, Arvind Desikan, was cleared of all charges, Google said.
The findings come just one day after the European Union opened an antitrust investigation concerning Google search. There was a day when Google was an exciting newcomer to the technology landscape, but the company now is clearly a powerful force that has governments as well as competitors concerned.
In a Google blog post, the company criticized the decision and said it will appeal.
"In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload," Google said. "It is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all."
The decision has repercussions beyond Google, said Jacqueline Lipton, an associate dean at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
"If Internet intermediaries are held liable for the violations of foreign laws by their users, that will significantly raise the costs of business for these companies," she said. "It may put them out of business or change their business models in ways to attempt to pass risks/costs more directly on to their consumers."
And the liability could extend beyond just privacy law, she added. "The same holds true in other areas of law where intermediaries may be liable for actions of their users--including intellectual property infringement (copyright, trademark etc.) and defamation," she said.
Google said the decision contradicts European Union law and poses broad problems for the Internet:
[W]e are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. 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. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and 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--then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political, and technological benefits it brings could disappear.
The Italian case was filed in 2008 after the 2006 publication on Google Video of a cell phone video of students taunting a teenager who had autism. Google removed the video and cooperated with authorities on investigating the video.
In the past, Google has held the case up as important because it could affect the extent to which Internet intermediaries are responsible for content published by third parties on their sites, calling it "a direct attack on a free, open Internet" in one statement and, in another statement, arguing that it's "akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post."
Concerning the antitrust investigation, Google said Tuesday "we are confident that our business operates in the interests of users and partners, as well as in line with European competition law."
Updated at 3:10 a.m. PST and 8:18 a.m. PST with Google remarks and legal commentary.
Correction, 9:15 a.m. PST: This story initially misidentified the Google site where the 2006 video was posted. It was at Google Video. Correction, 3:03 p.m. PST: Despite published reports throughout the case that the teenager had Down syndrome, it recently came to light that he had autism.