Four Google executives are facing trial in Italy after the search-engine is being held accountable for content that was posted on its Italian site.
The charges of defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data related to a video that was posted on the site, showing a disabled teen being harassed by peers. If convicted, Peter Fleischer and the three other Google executives could face a maximum of 36 months in prision.
A Google spokeswoman today said that bringing the case, which is thought to be the first of its kind, to court was "totally wrong".
Google has repeatedly expressed its sympathy for the victim and his family and it was the result of Google's co-operation that the "bullies in the video have been identified and punished," she said. But the company cannot be held responsible for the content, she said
"It's akin to prosecuting postal service employees for hate-mail letters sent in the post," the spokeswoman. "Seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open internet."
She said Google would "vigorously defend" its employees in the prosecution.
The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) described it as the first criminal sanction ever pursued against a privacy professional for his company's actions.
According to an IAPP description of the case, the charges against Fleischer and the other executives stems from a video that was uploaded on Google's Italian website in September 2006. The video showed four high-school boys in Turin taunting and bullying a 17-year classmate with Down Syndrome.
Though ISPs in Europe are not responsible for third-party content on their sites under EU law, they are required to remove content considered offensive if someone complains about it. In this particular case, Google did receive two complaints about the video, one from the Italian Interior Ministry, prompting the search giant to pull down the three-minute video barely 24 hours after receiving the requests.
Despite this action, Milan's public prosecutor, Francesco Cajani, decided that Google's privacy executives were in breach of the country's penal code, the IAPP report noted.
Five law enforcement officials surrounded Fleischer when he was on his way to a scheduled speaking engagement at the University of Milan on January 23 and took him to be deposed before a public prosecutor after the speech was delivered.
For the purposes of the prosecution, Google is being treated as an internet content provider, who under Italian law are considered responsible for third party content on their sites.