The Official Google Blog is reporting a conviction yesterday of three Google employees by a court in Italy of failing to abide by the Italian privacy code. According to Google, the gist of the matter is this: about three years ago some Italian students in Turin uploaded a video to YouTube that showed them bullying an autistic classmate. Google took the video down "within hours of being notified" of its existence and helped the police identify the uploader and those in the video. Subsequently, a prosecutor in Milan indicted the Google employees for criminal defamation and the privacy offence mentioned. As the Google announcement says, the employees:
did not appear in it, film it, upload it or review it. None of them know the people involved or were even aware of the video's existence until after it was removed.
They were acquitted on the charge of criminal defamation.
However, the convictions with respect to the privacy legislation, which Google will appeal, have caused Google to express concern about the future of the internet, arguing that if European Union "safe harbour" law doesn't protect hosting providers from the criminal actions of uploaders, hosting providers may not be able to operate.
According to the BBC story, the men convicted are Google executives, one of whom was the chief privacy officer in Italy.
The UK's former information commissioner is quoted by the BBC as saying the conviction is "ridiculous" and compares it to prosecuting the postal service for delivering hate mail. That certainly is one analogy; at the other end of the spectrum, though, is a comparison with a book publisher, where a conviction would be anything but ridiculous. The fact of the matter is likely that these analogies to older publishing and distribution systems are unhelpful: the internet and the associated structures and businesses comprise sufficiently novel aspects that we must simply address them directly and decide whether a Google or a local ISP should be responsible for material made available through their efforts.