Google Execs. Sentenced to Jail?

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Google just can't catch a break when it comes to privacy issues lately--on either side of the Atlantic. In the United States, the search engine company has come under fire for the release of its Buzz feature, mostly because it signed up users for the service without their consent; one user has even filed a lawsuit. Meanwhile, both Americans and Europeans have had problems with the Big Brother feel to Google Street View.

Now, in the latest legal setback for the company, three Google executives in Italy (David Drummond, Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer; Peter Fleischer, Global Privacy Counsel; and George Reyes, former Chief Financial Officer) have been convicted of a privacy violation by a judge in Milan for allowing the posting of a video of Torino schoolchildren taunting a classmate with autism. The execs were given six-month suspended jail sentences, and all are appealing the ruling.

The video in question was posted to Google Video in 2006, and was viewed several thousand times before Google pulled it two months later in response to a complaint by the Italian Interior Ministry; Google maintains that the video was pulled two and half hours after it was formally notified of its offensive nature. Prosecutors, however, contend the company had been receiving complaints for weeks.

Are We Approaching Inter-geddon?

What could this decision mean for the future of the Internet in Italy? In the world?

At first blush, the ruling is shocking both to the American concept of the freedom of speech and to American and EU laws that relieve Internet hosting platforms from liability for user contributions so long as offensive material is timely removed. But in Europe, the concept of privacy has developed much differently than it has in the United States, and it is not uncommon for European courts to privilege privacy over the freedom of speech.

Indeed, the Italian prosecutors in the Google case released the following statement: "We are very satisfied, because by means of this trial we have posed a serious problem: that is to say, the protection of human beings, which must prevail over corporate interests."

But we must remember that Italian judges do not have to issue reasons for their decisions until up to 90 days after a verdict, so the precise rationale of the Google verdict is still unknown. Even so, critics of the decision are already counting this as yet another attempt by Italy to control the Internet; past instances include threats of blocking Facebook pages, having bloggers register with the government, and requiring licensure of video uploaders (a weaker version of the original legislation was recently approved).

On the other hand, Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has been quoted as saying that there are, however, certain "egregious acts" for which "there should be some responsibility.” Rotenberg described the video in question as "enormously controversial, widely seen and very upsetting."

The Bigger Cyber-Picture

But perhaps there's something even larger to be learned from the Google verdict in Italy. Cyberspace expert and Temple Law Professor David G. Post sees this case as "(another) example of how poorly suited our international 'patchwork' of geographically-based law is for the Internet."

Indeed, Post, author of Jefferson's Moose and the State of Cyberspace, has long been an "Internet Exceptionalist" who maintains that cyberspace is unique and its legal needs, in particular, need to be closely examined.

"I've called this 'jurisdictional whack-a-mole'," said Post. "Now, anytime the Google executives are traveling overseas, should their plane happen to land in Italy--wham!-- they can be hauled off to jail. That is not a reasonable solution to the problem of cross-border activities."

Actually, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to believe the Google verdict may end up serving as an impetus for serious consideration of cyberspace law as its own entity--something that would likely benefit Google in the long run as at least then it (and companies similarly situated) wouldn't have to worry about whether they were in compliance with the laws of every country in the world.