Google execs face jail time in Italy over a user's video

Four Google execs face trial today in Milan, Italy, on criminal charges of defamation and privacy around a cellphone video, in a case that raises questions around the applicability of country-specific laws to user-submitted content.

In the video, a 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome gets taunted by a group of high school students in Turin, who then proceed to hit him with a box of tissues. Although the executives weren't directly involved in handling the three-minute clip posted to Google Video, all four face possible jail time.

The video was posted to Google Video on Sept. 8, 2006, by one of the youths who disparaged the disabled teen.

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The case is drawing global attention because it is unusual, if not unprecedented, for Internet company executives to be held criminally responsible -- and to face possible jail time -- for the actions of their companies. The charges in Italy against the four executives carry maximum jail time of 36 months.

The charges also bring up the issue of whether Internet companies should screen user-submitted content before publishing it. Under US copyright law, online services are generally protected from liability as long as they respond quickly to complaints.

Similarly, under European Union law, Internet service providers are not required to monitor third-party content on their sites, However, they are required to remove content considered objectionable if they get a complaint about it, according to Tracey Bentley, director of publications for the Internet Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), a group that's been looking into the charges against the four execs.

Google removed the offending content on November 7, 2006, within 24 hours of receiving two separate complaints: one from a user, and one from the Italian Interior Ministry.

However, Milan public prosecutor Francesco Cajani is charging Google as an Internet content provider, not as an Internet service provider.

Under Italian penal code, Internet content providers are indeed held responsible for third-party content published to their sites. "This is essentially the same law regulating newspaper and television publishers," Bentley wrote in an IAPP newsletter.

According to an article in today's New York Times, the four executives charged in Italy include David Drummond, Google's senior VP and chief legal officer; George Reyes, Google's former CFO; Peter Fleischer, Google's global counsel; and a still unidentified executive who formerly worked at Google Video in London.

As Bentley tells it, Fleischer was on his way to a speaking engagement at the University of Milan on January 23 of this year when he was suddenly detained by law enforcement officials, who ultimately allowed him to deliver his talk before taking him to a deposition by the public prosecutor.

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