Google privacy execs to face criminal charges in Italian court

Case said to be first criminal sanction against a privacy professional for company's actions

In what is believed to be the first instance of a privacy executive being held accountable for his firm's actions, Google's global privacy counsel is scheduled to appear before a criminal court in Milan, Italy, on Tuesday on charges of defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data.

Peter Fleischer and three other Google executives face criminal charges over the posting of a video showing a disabled teen being harassed by peers. They face up to a maximum of 36 months if convicted on the charges.

A Google spokeswoman today said that bringing the case to court was "totally wrong."

Google has repeatedly expressed its sympathy for the victim and his family, and it was the result of Google's cooperation that the "bullies in the video have been identified and punished," she said.

But the company cannot be held responsible for the content, she said.

"It's akin to prosecuting mail-service employees for hate-speech letters sent in the post," the spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

"Seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open Internet," she said.

She added that Google would "vigorously defend" its employees in the prosecution.

The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), which published a story on the case today, described it as the first criminal sanction ever pursued against a privacy professional for his company's actions.

According to an IAPP description of the case, the charges against Fleischer and the other executives stems from a video that was uploaded on Google's Italian Web site in September 2006. The video showed four high-school boys in Turin taunting and bullying a 17-year-old classmate with Down Syndrome.

Though ISPs in the EU are not responsible for third-party content on their sites under EU law, they are required to remove content considered offensive if someone complains about it. In this particular case, Google did receive two complaints about the video, one from the Italian Interior Ministry, prompting the search company to pull down the three-minute video barely 24 hours after receiving the requests.

Despite this action, Milan's public prosecutor, Francesco Cajani, decided that Google's privacy executives were in breach of the country's penal code, the IAPP report noted.

Five law enforcement officials surrounded Fleischer when he was on his way to a scheduled speaking engagement at the University of Milan on Jan. 23 and took him to be deposed before a public prosecutor after the speech was delivered.

For the purposes of the prosecution, Google is being treated as an Internet content provider, which under Italian law, is considered responsible for third-party content on its sites.

A source quoted in the IAPP article said the case could go on for months.

Trevor Hughes, executive director of the IAPP, said the Italian prosecutor's decision to hit both Google and its privacy executives with criminal sanctions is "challenging for us to understand."

So far, at least, there appears to be nothing to indicate that Fleischer personally knew anything about the video at issue or its contents before it was posted online, he said. "From what we know of the facts, there is no condemning memo, no smoking gun to suggest he had any knowledge of the video."

He added that the IAPP knows of no other instance where privacy executives have been personally charged in this fashion. He noted that the charges could have a lasting effect on Fleischer personally, because it means that he will have to answer in the affirmative any time he is officially asked whether he has been charged with a criminal offense.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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