MILAN (Reuters) - Verdicts were expected on Wednesday on Google executives charged over a bullying video posted on the company’s Italian website, in a case that could set a precedent for Internet content responsibility.
The ruling comes as Italy’s government seeks to impose restrictions on hate pages on social networks and as YouTube, owned by Google, is locked in a legal battle with Mediaset, controlled by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Italy’s largest private broadcaster wants 500 million euros ($680 million) in damages from YouTube for copyright infringement.
In the current trial Milan public prosecutors accused three current managers and one former Google executive of defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data.
The case stems from an incident in 2006 when students at an Italian school filmed and then uploaded a clip to Google Video showing them bullying a schoolmate with Down’s syndrome.
The complaint was brought by an Italian advocacy group for people with Down’s syndrome, Vivi Down, and the boy’s father.
Down’s syndrome is the most common genetic cause of mental retardation, occurring in about 1 out of 700 live births.
The video, showing four male high school students in Turin humiliating the youth, was filmed from a mobile phone and posted on the site in September 2006.
Google says it removed the video immediately after being notified and then cooperated with Italian authorities to help identify the bullies and bring them to justice.
It says that, as hosting platforms that do not create content, Google Video, YouTube and Facebook “are not responsible for the content that others upload onto these sites.”
The prosecutors accuse Google of negligence arguing the video remained online for two months even though some web users had already posted comments asking for it to be taken down.
They want sentences ranging from six months to a year, saying the need to safeguard fundamental rights takes priority over business, and that what is at issue is not freedom of expression on the Internet but the responsibility of companies.
Google has compared the case to prosecuting the postal system for hate letters sent by mail and warns that a conviction would be a setback for development of the Web in Italy.
The defendants are Google senior vice-president and chief legal officer David Drummond, former Google Italy board member George De Los Reyes, senior product marketing manager Arvind Desikan and global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer.
Censoring of web sites has become a hot issue in Italy in recent months, following a spate of hate sites against officials including Berlusconi.
The government briefly studied plans to black out Internet hate sites after fan pages emerged praising an attack on the premier, but the idea was dropped after executives from Facebook, Google and Microsoft agreed to a shared code of conduct rather than legislation.
In a case separate from the Google trial, an Italian Facebook group proposing that children with Down’s syndrome be used for target practice was shut down on Monday. Italy’s equality minister threatened the “thousands of idiots” involved with legal action.
Writing by Daniel Flynn and Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Matthew Jones