MILAN — It seems that when it comes to letting the Web be the Web, it could be the United States against the world.
An Italian judge on Wednesday held three Google executives criminally responsible for an online video of an autistic teenager being bullied – a verdict that raises concerns that the Internet giant, and others like it, may be forced to police their content in Italy, and even beyond.
The reaction to the verdict in the United States was swift and nearly unanimous in its condemnation of a dangerous precedent experts said threatens the principle of a free and open Internet.
However, Milan Prosecutor Alfredo Robledo reflected a European concern with privacy when he expressed satisfaction with a decision he said protected a fundamental right, putting the interests of an individual before those of a business.
"This is the big principal affirmed by this verdict," Robledo said. "It is fundamental, because a person's identity is a primary good. If we give that up, anything can happen and that is not OK."
The charges stemmed from a complaint by Vivi Down, an advocacy group for people with Down syndrome that was named in the 2006 video posted on Google Video, a video-sharing service Google ran before acquiring YouTube later that year.
The footage showed an autistic student in Turin being pushed, pummeled with objects, including a pack of tissues, and insulted by classmates, who called him a "mongoloid."
The prosecutor's case emphasized that the video had been viewed 5,500 times over the two months it was online, when it climbed to the top of Google Italy's "most entertaining" video list and had more than 80 comments, including users urging its removal.
Google argued that it was unaware of the offensive material and acted swiftly to remove it after being notified by authorities, taking the video down within two hours.
Those convicted of violating Italy's privacy laws were Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, its senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond and retired chief financial officer George Reyes. They were given six-month suspended sentences.
They were absolved of defamation charges, along with a fourth defendant, London-based senior product marketing manager Arvind Desikan, who was charged only with defamation. All were charged in absentia and denied wrongdoing.
Google called the decision "astonishing," saying it "attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built."
While there is no debate that the executives had no role in creating or uploading the video, they were held liable under Italian law as officers of the company.
"The judge has decided I'm primarily responsible for the actions of some teenagers who uploaded a reprehensible video to Google video," said Fleischer, who is based in Paris.
"If company employees like me can be held criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform when they had absolutely nothing to do with the video in question, then our liability is unlimited," he said in a statement.
Drummond said he was "outraged" that he was found criminally responsible for the video, noting that both European Union and Italian law recognized that Internet service providers like Google are not required to monitor content that they host.
"This verdict sets a dangerous precedent," Drummond said in a statement from Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. It also "imperils the powerful tool that an open and free Internet has become for social advocacy and change."
In the United States, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 generally gives online service providers immunity in cases like this, but no such protections exist in Europe.
Google and other hosting platforms generally rely on other users flagging objectionable content. They say the monumental effort it would take to prescreen the 20 hours of video that are posted every minute to YouTube alone makes such controls unthinkable.
In the privacy vs. freedom of expression debate, Europe's championing of privacy has merit, said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffe, an Internet economist at Milan's Bocconi University. But he said Europe falls short by "not providing a clear, transparent legal environment."
"Europe is too ideological. This is why we are not the place where Yahoo and Google were born," Maffe said. "Google has been developed with an American mindset, much more entrepenuer-friendly."
Google spokesman Bill Echikson made clear the Internet giant has no intention of pulling out of Italy, as it has threatened to do in China over censorship concerns, noting that Italy "is a democratic society."
Privacy experts warned the Italian decision could embolden authoritarian regimes.
"We are concerned that non-democratic countries will point to it as a precedent for holding companies responsible for hosting content. This could have a chilling effect on free speech," said Ari Schwartz, chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington D.C.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome also expressed disappointment in the verdict.
"While we recognize the reprehensible nature of the material, we disagree that Internet service providers are responsible prior to posting for the content uploaded by users," it said in a statement. "The fundamental principle of Internet freedom is vital for democracies which value freedom of expression and is protected by those who value liberty."
Google argued that it removed the video two hours after it received notification from police, which it says is in line with a EU directive that requires it to respond to authorities' requests.
However, prosecutors also suggested during the trial that the company's policy of having users flag material fell short. It is unclear if that argument had sway with Judge Oscar Magi, who will issue his written ruling later.
Eddan Katz, international affairs director of San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, argued that the incident itself might have gone unreported if not for the video. That supposition was supported by a statement made to authorities by the autistic teen's father, who expressed anguish at seeing on the video how his son had suffered but hadn't had the courage to tell his family.
Thanks to the footage and Google's cooperation, the four bullies were identified and sentenced by a juvenile court to community service.
Exposing wrongdoing and abuse, Katz said, is a strong argument against placing limits on the Web.
"The implication would be that those videos exposing wrongdoing on the part of government, corruption, or organized crime would not be aired. How do we differentiate between the positive exposure of that kind of information, and the negative?"