It's getting a little dicey for Google (GOOG) in Europe.
On Wednesday, an Italian judge found three Google executives -- including the company's top lawyer -- guilty of violating the privacy of a youth over a 2006 video that depicted the child, who has Down Syndrome, being bullied. In what Internet experts are calling a dangerous precedent, the judge held the executives responsible after a copy of the video was posted on Google Video.
Meanwhile, the company said Wednesday it faces antitrust scrutiny from European Union regulators over complaints leveled by three European Internet companies. The court ruling and the E.U. probe, which officials said was preliminary, are signs of Google's increasingly rocky road in Europe.
Google expressed shock at the Italian decision, calling it "astonishing."
The Milan-based judge found Google's Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, Chief Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer and former Chief Financial Officer George Reyes, guilty of violating the privacy of the youth, whose father had brought the case along with an Down Syndrome advocacy group. Each of the executives face suspended six-month prison sentences. Google said it will appeal the case.
Google Says Ruling Attacks Internet Freedom
None of the executives was even aware of the video until it was taken down, shortly after being posted, the company said. But even more troubling, the company said, was the that the ruling "attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built."
"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," Matt Sucherman, Google's Deputy General Counsel for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, wrote in a blog post. "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."
In the United States, federal law grants Web-hosting providers protection from similar prosecution.
Freedom Of Internet Or Dignity Of Individual?
Fleischer, Google's privacy chief, issued statement saying, "If company employees like me can be held criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform when they had absolutely nothing to do with the video in question, then our liability is unlimited." Drummond called the verdict "a dangerous precedent" that "imperils the powerful tool that an open and free Internet has become for social advocacy and change."
Italian Prosecutor Alfredo Robledo disputed that notion. "This trial wasn't about freedom of the Internet, as some people have said. Instead, for the first time in Italy, there has been a discussion of the serious question of the rights of the individual in today's society," Robledo told reporters. "The rights of a business enterprise cannot take precedence over the dignity of the individual."
In a statement, the U.S. embassy in Rome expressed concern over the verdict. "While we recognize the reprehensible nature of the material, we disagree that Internet service providers are responsible prior to posting for the content uploaded by users," the embassy said. "The fundamental principle of Internet freedom is vital for democracies which value freedom of expression and is protected by those who value liberty."
Company Faces "Scrutiny" From EU Antitrust Regulators
Google's legal troubles in Italy aren't the only European headache for the company. On Wednesday, Google said it has been notified of by E.U. antitrust authorities of complaints filed against the company by three web firms: Foundem, a United Kingdom price-comparison website; ejustice.fr, a French legal search engine, and Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing-powered Ciao! shopping site. In a statement, the E.U. said the probe was merely preliminary, but it's an uncomfortable development for Google, which dominates the search market in the U.S. and Europe.
The companies accuse Google of manipulating its search rankings to disadvantage the sites. In a company blog post, Julia Holtz, Senior Competition Counsel, denied that Google's practices were unjust and said the company works hard "to compete fair and square in the market." She added that Foundem belongs to an organization called ICOMP that is funded partly by Microsoft, meaning two of the three complainants have ties to the Redmond, Wash. software giant, a bitter rival of Google.
As Google's power grows, it should come as no surprise that it is attracting unwelcome attention from antitrust regulators and privacy advocates. In Europe, those are two areas that authorities take very seriously, as this week's events show.
Italy Convicts Google Execs of Privacy Violation