Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Google privacy trial opens in Milan

Case called a 'test' of Internet privacy laws

ROME -- The trial of four Google Inc. executives charged with privacy violations opened in Milan today in a groundbreaking test of European Internet law.

None of the suspects, who each risk a maximum penalty of three years in prison, was present in court, and the hearing lasted only five minutes, according to one of the lawyers present.

The Google executives are accused of defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data following the posting of a cell-phone video showing a teenage boy with Down Syndrome being harassed by four classmates.

"It's true that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of Google," Guido Camera, a lawyer representing a charity that assists those with Down Syndrome, said in a telephone interview. "The absence of legislation in this sector makes this an important test case."

The video was posted in September 2006 and taken down two months later following a complaint by Vivi Down, the charitable organization represented by Camera.

The defendants are David Drummond, Google's senior vice president and chief legal officer, George Reyes, the company's former chief financial officer, Peter Fleischer, its global privacy counsel, and Arvind Desikan, former head of Google Video Europe.

Google has expressed sympathy for the victim, a 17-year-old boy from Turin, and his family but insists that the prosecution is misdirected. "We feel that bringing this case to court is totally wrong. It's akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post," it said in a statement. "What's more, 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."

Camera said there were subtle legal issues at stake in the trial. "There is no vindictive intention here. My clients are seeking an important clarification of the legal issues. The verdict will clarify whether Italy's 2003 privacy law must be respected by someone who distributes images in Italy but has his servers in the United States. It will say whether the law was applicable and whether it has been respected," he said.

Vivi Down has no desire to introduce Internet censorship, Camera insisted. In a statement issued last year, the organization explained that it was seeking to establish whether Italian law had been violated by publication of the video. "In a democratic society, freedom of expression is as sacrosanct as respect for the rules underpinning civic coexistence and the rights of others, especially when they are weak and defenseless," the statement said.

During the brief hearing, the judge received requests from several parties to participate in the trial as plaintiffs, including Vivi Down, the civic defender of the city of Milan, and a woman who alleges that she was harmed by Google's failure to correct reports of a court case that she was involved in, according to Camera and published reports. The trial was adjourned until Feb. 18.

If the judge accepts Google's arguments, the case could close on Feb. 18, Camera said. Otherwise, he noted, it could go on for months.

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