An Italian court has convicted three Google executives of privacy offences, after a video of an autistic boy being bullied was uploaded to Google Video.
The executives — chief legal officer David Drummond, privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and former chief financial officer George Reyes — were given six-month suspended sentences for failing to comply with the Italian privacy code, but were exonerated from defamation charges. A fourth defendant, marketing executive Arvind Desikan, was acquitted on all charges.
The bullying video was uploaded in 2006 by schoolchildren in Turin, and the executives had no connection with the video other than their positions at Google at the time.
In a statement on Wednesday, Drummond and Fleischer — the only two of the convicted executives who still work for Google, as Reyes retired in 2008 — said they would "vigorously appeal" against the verdict.
"I am outraged by the decision of a judge in Milan today finding that I am criminally responsible for violating the privacy rights of an autistic school boy who was harassed and bullied by several of his classmates," Drummond said, adding that the ruling sets a "chilling precedent".
"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," Drummond said.
Drummond pointed out that Google took the video down as soon as it found out it was on Google Video. He said European and Italian law "recognises that internet hosting providers like Google are not required to monitor content that they host".
Fleischer said he knew nothing of the video's existence until it had already been removed from Google Video. "I was very saddened by the plight of the boy in the video, not least as I have devoted my professional life to preserving and protecting personal privacy rights," he said.
The bullying video case is only one of several recent conflicts with the Italian authorities relating to Google's online video services. In December 2009, Mediaset — an Italian broadcaster founded and owned by prime minister and media baron Silvio Berlusconi — won a lawsuit against Google over Mediaset content that had been uploaded to Google-owned YouTube.
Then, in January this year, the Italian government also issued a decree stating that all websites showing videos would have to have an official licence to do so, and creating new fines for copyright infringement.
In his statement on Wednesday, Fleischer said the Italian court's verdict "raises broader questions like the continued operation of many internet platforms that are the essential foundations of freedom of expression in the digital age".
"I recognise that I am just a pawn in a larger battle of forces, but I remain confident that today's ruling will be overturned on appeal," Fleischer said.