A row over internet freedom has erupted in Italy following the conviction of three Google executives for breaking the country’s privacy laws.
The trio received six-month suspended jail terms for allowing a video showing an Italian boy with autism being bullied to be posted on its site in 2006.
At least 12,000 people clicked on the video before Google took it down following a formal complaint from the Italian Interior Ministry.
Italian prosecutors say “a company’s rights cannot prevail over a person’s dignity.”
Censoring of websites has been fiercely debated in Italy following an eruption of so-called hate sites against officials including Silvio Berlusconi.
But as none of its employees had anything to do with the film, Google’s senior communications manager, Bill Echikson, told euronews that the Milan court verdict poses a “crucial question for the freedom on which the Internet is built.”
The firm has also made clear it will appeal against the sentence and wants the ruling discussed at the highest European level.
euronews – Anne Glemarec: Legally, what type of control is expected of you regarding the content of what is uploaded on your site?
Bill Echikson, Google’s senior communications manager: Well, European and Italian law is very clear. What is responsible is when you’re told by the authorities that there is an illegal piece of material up on our web, we have to take it down and that’s what we did in this case. The Italian police told us about this video, and it was a horrible video, they told us at 4 o’clock on November 7th 2006 and by 6.30 it was down.
euronews: Yes, but as everyone knows for a fact, the more visitors you get, the more adverstisers you attract on a website…
Bill Echikson, Google: That is totally false,…
euronews: Oh, howcome?
Bill Echikson, Google: Money, there was no money involved, there was no advertising alongside this video, and I think that it is really, you know, it’s just not true in this particular case. The issue is one of freedom of expression and freedom of the Internet. Are we going to go to a system where the Internet is throttled or where it is liberated?
euronews: But this video, when it was one of the most popular in Italy, triggered a scandal. It was impossible to ignore. Why did you wait two months to remove it?
Bill Echikson, Google: I told you, we waited two hours to remove it when the Italian police contacted us. We believe the video is terrible but what is at stake here is: are you going to prosecute the postman for delivering a letter that you don’t like the content of? Or the telephone company for hosting a conversation that is uncomfortable or even illegal? No, of course not!
euronews: But the point I’m trying to make here is that this video couldn’t be ignored, it was a big thing in Italy. Did you really need the police to phone you and ask you to remove it?
Bill Echikson: The law is very clear and what you’re suggesting… The law is very clear and we followed the law. And we think is a very crucial question of principle is : do you prosecute the postman for delivering a letter? Or do we throttle the Internet and control it in a way that threatens freedom of expression.
Internet giants have agreed to a shared code of conduct rather than legislation to deal with the problem but prosecutors appear undetered.
Action is now being taken against other firms such as Facebook over similar cases.