Google executives face Milan trial

Four executives from Google, the internet search company, will go on trial in Milan court in a trial that could have significant implications for internet privacy and the future of video-sharing websites.

An Italian prosecutor has laid criminal charges against the four, who include David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, and Peter Fleischer, its top privacy executive, after footage of a disabled boy being bullied by other boys was broadcast on Google Video.

The four executives are charged with criminal defamation against the disabled boy and with breaching the Italian privacy code. They face up to three years in prison if convicted. One of the executives, George Reyes, former chief financial officer, has since retired from Google. The fourth is Arvind Desikan, a senior product marketing manager.

The case relates to an incident at a school in Turin in 2006 that caused outrage in Italy. Four boys were filmed teasing another boy, who has Down's syndrome. A three-minute mobile phone recording of the incident was uploaded to Google Video, where it was seen by thousands of users over almost two months before being removed by Google after the Italian government and police intervened.

The prosecutor, Francesco Cajani, argued that Google should have acted to prevent the broadcast of the footage and that by failing to do so it breached the disabled boy's privacy. Google maintained that it removed the video as soon as the company became aware of it, and that the group had co-operated with investigators in identifying the four boys involved.

Google said that "seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open internet. We will continue to vigorously defend our employees in this prosecution."

Legal and privacy experts said the case could set new rules for how video-sharing websites operate and how far they should go to control content. "This is the first case, not only in Italy but in Europe, to set out so clearly the legal issues surrounding video-sharing websites," said Oreste Pollicino, a law professor at Bocconi University in Milan.

Video-sharing sites operate in Europe under the European Union's electronic commerce directive, which exonerates internet service providers from liability for illegal content, drawing a distinction bet­ ween those who produce such content and those who provide the tools to broadcast it. Still, experts said, those rules may underestimate national and public concerns, and the outcome of the Milan case could have a bearing on how they are applied in future.

Trevor Hughes, director of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, said the case showed how international companies with standardised approaches to privacy and data protection risked falling foul of strong local sensitivities, even if they followed the letter of the law. "In Europe, privacy is seen as a fundamental human right," he said.

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