Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Google’s European Road Trip Gets Even Worse

Maybe Google should just retire its passport for a bit.

In China, the search giant is battling hackers and the government, who may be one and the same. In Europe, the company is being hauled in front of an antitrust review. And Italy? Total disaster.

Yesterday, an Italian court convicted three Google (GOOG) executives of privacy violations in a case that stems from a clip uploaded to Google Video in 2006. The executives, who include former CFO George Reyes, have been sentenced to six-month prison sentences.

And that verdict follows a December ruling whereby an Italian court found the company guilty of copyright violations on YouTube, the video site it bought in 2006. Mediaset, the broadcaster that brought the suit–and which is controlled by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi–is looking for more than $730 million in damages.

Google has responded to the video convictions with an outraged blog post. Note that the language is more forceful than the company used to describe its China problem. But also note that the company isn’t threatening to pull out of Italy altogether. Maybe it should.

Serious threat to the web in Italy
2/24/2010 01:57:00 AM
In late 2006, students at a school in Turin, Italy filmed and then uploaded a video to Google Video that showed them bullying an autistic schoolmate. The video was totally reprehensible and we took it down within hours of being notified by the Italian police. We also worked with the local police to help identify the person responsible for uploading it and she was subsequently sentenced to 10 months community service by a court in Turin, as were several other classmates who were also involved. In these rare but unpleasant cases, that’s where our involvement would normally end.

But in this instance, a public prosecutor in Milan decided to indict four Google employees–David Drummond, Arvind Desikan, Peter Fleischer and George Reyes (who left the company in 2008). The charges brought against them were criminal defamation and a failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. To be clear, none of the four Googlers charged had anything to do with this video. They 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.

Nevertheless, a judge in Milan today convicted 3 of the 4 defendants–David Drummond, Peter Fleischer and George Reyes–for failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. All 4 were found not guilty of criminal defamation. In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload. We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question. Throughout this long process, they have displayed admirable grace and fortitude. It is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all.

But we are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them–every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video–then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.

These are important points of principle, which is why we and our employees will vigorously appeal this decision.

Posted by Matt Sucherman, VP and Deputy General Counsel–Europe, Middle East and Africa

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work