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Court ruling

25 Feb 2010

Jail sentences handed down in Italy to three Googleexecutives have major implications for freedom on the Internet, because thecourt’s ruling makes the hosts of online content criminally liable for materialposted by other people.

The Google executives received six-month suspended jailsentences in absentia for violating the privacy of a mentally handicapped boy,whose bullying in Turin by four other boys was captured on video and posted onGoogle Video in Italy.

Google removed the clip within 24 hours of receivingcomplaints, but the Italian court found that it was an Internet content provider,and therefore liable under the same Italian law the covers newspapers andbroadcasting. The Google executives were cleared of other charges ofdefamation.

Matt Sucherman, Google's European vice president and deputygeneral counsel, said in a blog post that the Google employees had nothing todo with the offending video. “They did not appear in it, film it, upload it orreview it. None of them know the people involved or were even aware of thevideo's existence until after it was removed,” he said.

“In essence this ruling means that employees of hostingplatforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that usersupload.” Sucherman said it was “outrageous” that the case went to trial at all,and the decision would be appealed. The conviction, he said, “attacks the veryprinciples of freedom on which the Internet is built”.

“Common sense dictates that only the person who films anduploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protectthe privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming,” Suchermansaid. “European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers asafe harbour from liability so long as they remove illegal content once theyare notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that anotice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish andsupport 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, areheld responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded tothem — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Webas we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, politicaland technological benefits it brings could disappear.”

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