Milan prosecutors seek prison sentences for Google execs

The case concerns the posting on Google Video of a three-minute mobile-phone video showing a handicapped boy being tormented by his classmates in a Turin school

Milan prosecutors Wednesday sought prison sentences ranging from six months to one year for four Google executives accused of violating Italy's privacy laws over the posting of a video showing the bullying of a handicapped teenage boy.

The prosecutor's request was backed up by a request by lawyers representing the Milan city council for €300,000 (US$452,000) in moral and material damages.

The case concerns the posting on Google Video of a three-minute mobile-phone video showing a handicapped boy being tormented by his classmates in a Turin school.

Prosecutors Alfredo Robledo and Francesco Caiani asked Judge Oscar Magi to sentence David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer; Peter Fleischer, global privacy counselor; and George De Los Reyes, the former chief financial officer, to one year's imprisonment for defamation and violation of the privacy law. They also sought a six-month sentence for Arvind Desikan, the former head of Google Video Europe.

"It wouldn't have taken much to provide a responsible service and protect privacy," the prosecutors said. "The problem is to find the right balance between the right to enterprise and the protection of individual rights that are guaranteed by the constitution. Every time someone clicks on a video, Google earns money. That's an economic fact."

The video remained online for two months, from Sept. 8 to Nov. 7, 2006, climbing to number 29 in the "fun" videos section and being viewed by 5,500 visitors, the prosecutors said. It was not removed under Google's normal system of control but only after a press campaign was launched in Italy and after an appeal from the head of Italy's postal police, they said.

The prosecutors said Google had made a strategic decision to accept any kind of video on its platform, unlike its Italian competitors, which had elected to monitor the quality of their online content.

There is no chance of the Google executives actually going to prison, however, according to Google lawyer Giuliano Pisapia. For a first offender receiving a prison sentence of less than three years, the penalty is automatically suspended, he said.

Pisapia expressed optimism that the four executives would be acquitted in any case and there would be no repercussions for the way Google does business in Italy. "It's not true that every click produces revenue. Google Video in Italy was free and without any advertising links. The suggestion that Google was motivated by profit is disproved by the results of the investigation," the Google lawyer said in a telephone interview.

The prosecutors had also failed to acknowledge Google's cooperation with the Italian police, Pisapia said. The bullying of the handicapped boy, which had been going on for two years, came to an end after Google identified the person responsible for posting the video and enabled the police to identify the boy's tormentors, he said.

The delay in removing the offensive video was the result of a failure to apply to the right authority, Pisapia said. When the complaint reached Google Inc., which controlled Google Video, the video was removed within hours, he said. "The first complaint went to the wrong address, so the people who had the power to remove it were unaware of the problem."

Italian law does not lay any responsibility on hosting providers to monitor the content they upload onto Internet, Pisapia said. "Their only responsibility, established under a 2003 law, is to remove content when ordered to do so by the judicial authorities."

Guido Camera, a lawyer representing the interests of Vivi Down, the association that originally drew attention to the existence of the video, said the prosecutors had underscored the organizational failures at Google that had contributed to the privacy abuse.

"There should have been a flagging system at work. There were numerous complaints, but the video was still not removed," Camera said in a telephone interview. "No one wants to crucify Google, but to establish whether fundamental privacy rights -- the habeas corpus of the future -- are being adequately protected."

Google's defense lawyers will have the opportunity to reply to the prosecutors at a hearing scheduled for Dec. 16, and a verdict is expected in January.

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