ROME—An Italian court convicted three Google Inc. executives of violating the privacy of a disabled boy by allowing a 2006 video of students bullying the boy to air on the now-defunct Google Video site. The ruling could restrict the way Internet companies operate in Italy.
1:32Three Google executives are given suspended jail sentences after being found guilty of invading the privacy of a boy with Down Syndrome in Italy. A fourth has been acquitted. Video courtesy of Reuters.
Judge Oscar Magi in Milan issued six-month prison sentences Wednesday to David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president and chief legal officer; Peter Fleischer, its chief privacy counsel; and George Reyes, the company’s former chief financial officer. Messrs. Drummond and Reyes were based in the U.S.; Mr. Fleischer is based in Paris.
The three officials don’t face extradition or jail time, however, because prison sentences of less than three years are automatically suspended in Italy.
Giuliano Pisapia, a lawyer for Messrs. Drummond, Fleischer and Reyes, called the convictions “totally groundless,” and said the executives plan to appeal.
Google plans to discuss the ruling with European policy makers, said a person familiar with the matter.
Rachel Whetstone, Google’s vice president for public policy and communications, in an interview called the ruling “at complete odds” with a European law that protects online service providers. “Legislation in Europe and the U.S. is specifically configured to provide safe harbors. If politicians and courts start picking away at that, that is something we are worried about,” she said.
Ms. Whetstone said that Google had been concerned about the case and had been talking to people across Europe, and especially in Italy, about its implications “for a considerable period of time.”
The three men were acquitted of criminal defamation, a charge for which they were also on trial and that would have carried a heavier prison sentence. The court also acquitted Google’s senior product marketing manager, Arvind Desikan.
The ruling sets a legal precedent in Europe for one of the most sensitive issues facing video sites such as Google’s YouTube: whether Internet companies can be held legally liable for content that is posted on video sites by third parties.
“If individuals like myself and my Google colleagues who had nothing to do with the harassing incident, its filming or its uploading onto Google Video can be held criminally liable solely by virtue of our positions at Google, every employee of any Internet-hosting service faces similar liability,” said Mr. Drummond.
David Thorne, U.S. ambassador to Italy, said the U.S. was “disappointed” by the ruling, which he described as a blow to the freedom of the Internet. “While all nations must guard against abuses, offensive material should not be an excuse to violate this fundamental right,” said Mr. Thorne said in a statement.
The video, which was posted Sept. 8, 2006, and removed from the site on Nov. 7 of that year, showed a disabled boy being teased by classmates, said Giuseppe Vaciago, another lawyer for the Google executives. At one point in the video, one of the boy’s classmates tosses a piece of paper at him, Mr. Vaciago added.
Prosecutors argued in court that Google Video, the site that hosted the video, was responsible for its content because management running the site had drafted a plan to sell advertising on it. Mr. Pisapia argued in court that Google Video never actually offered ad space in Italy, and that the executives on trial played no role in the preparation of the marketing plan. During the trial, Mr. Pisapia and other lawyers for Google’s executives denied any wrongdoing, arguing that the case risked infringing on Internet freedom.
In court, the lawyers said Google had removed the video from the site once Italian authorities notified the company about it. Google’s conduct, lawyers argued, complied with European Union norms, enacted in 2000, that draw a line between companies or people who develop content for the Internet and companies that provide platforms to host and disseminate such material.
Twenty hours of video are uploaded on YouTube every minute, according to Google.
Forcing Internet companies to monitor and screen video sites poses enormous challenges to their business models, said Richard Thomas, the former Information Commissioner for the U.K.
“There’s a limit to how much hosts can be held liable for content,” said Mr. Thomas. “It’s like prosecuting a postal authority when hate mail is sent through the post,” he said.
In a statement, Mr. Fleischer said the ruling also raised “broader questions like the continued operation of many Internet platforms that are the essential foundations of freedom of expression in the digital age.”
Google has no plans to scale down its operations in Italy, said William Echikson, a Google spokesman. The company will continue to rely on users to notify it about potentially abusive videos, Mr. Echikson added “We fundamentally believe the community system is the best way of policing the Net,” he said.
—Jessica E. Vascellaro contributed to this article.