Imagine the following scenario: A group of students harasses another student who is autistic. The group videotapes its bullying behavior of the student. Someone decides to upload the video to the Internet. After receiving complaints, the website hosting the video immediately removes it. Has a crime been committed?

While most may agree that the actions of those responsible for the bullying and posting of the video are horrendous, a criminal prosecution for the single act of uploading such a video seems to be an unlikely and extraordinary result in the United States. However, this scenario actually played out in Italy in 2006 when a student posted an offensive video to Google Video, and the extent of criminal liability has gone far beyond what is fathomable for many. Not only did Italian officials locate and prosecute the individual responsible for posting the video, but they prosecuted four Google employees on charges of criminal defamation and violation of the Italian privacy code. While all four employees were cleared on the defamation charges, three were convicted of failure to comply with the privacy code and received a suspended prison sentence of six months last Wednesday. A pretty harsh result when the employees, Google executives, never even knew about the video until after it had been removed from the website.

In the United States, notions of free speech and laws work to protect companies such as Google from liability for content that is uploaded or published by individuals. The implications of this decision are not yet clear, but in a post on Google’s blog, attorney Matt Sucherman stated that:

[i]n essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload.

Sucherman went on to comment that:

[if] 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.

Indeed the Italian court’s decision seems to ignore the practical reality of the Internet. Many websites would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pre-approve all submitted content. Responsibility for ensuring that uploaded content complies with all laws is a heavy burden to place on companies. What effect would such a burden have on the Internet as we know it?

In light of Google’s plan to operate in Italy as usual while aggressively appealing the case, it is hard to know what, if anything, the case will mean for Google and similar Internet companies operating in Italy and other European countries.

Hannah Smith

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One Response to Italian Court Decides Google Executives are Criminals

  1. MementoOfLaw says:

    It’s hard to believe considering the EU E-Commerce Directive was supposed to foster the creation of companies like YouTube and Blogger in the EU. On the other hand, it’s not hard to believe this happened in a country that used to hang its leaders when things went wrong.

    Stil, departure from their own professed code seems to indicate an alterior motive. It’s likely that Italy doesn’t have the same protections against prosecutorial vindictiveness as the US. Maybe it’s their way of getting back for the fact that the EU directives did nothing to dilute American dominance of the internet by companies like Google, Facebook and YouTube.

    The message is that the capital crime in Europe is the same as it was in the Napoleonic Era: being rich and successful while the common people are not.