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YouTube Peter Fleischer Criminal Prosecution in Italy

In Italy, a rather disturbing prosecution is taking place. Google officials, including Chief Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer, are being criminally prosecuted for a video somebody else uploaded to YouTube. According to an article by Tracey Bentley in the International Association of Privacy Professionals’ The Privacy Advisor:

The video that sparked the investigation was captured in a Turin classroom. Four high school boys were recorded taunting a young man with Down syndrome, and hitting the 17-year-old with a tissue box. One of the boys uploaded the footage to Google Video’s Italian site on September 8, 2006.

According to Google, more than 200,000 videos are uploaded to Google Video each day. Under EU legislation incorporated into Italian law in 2003, Internet service providers are not responsible for monitoring third-party content on their sites, but are required to remove content considered offensive if they receive a complaint about it. Between November 6 and 7, 2006, Google received two separate requests for the removal of the video–one from a user, and one from the Italian Interior Ministry, the authority responsible for investigating Internet-related crimes. Google removed the video on November 7, 2006, within 24 hours of receiving the requests.

Nonetheless, Milan public prosecutor Francesco Cajani decided that by allowing the 191-second clip onto its site, Google executives were in breach of Italian penal code. . . .

Cajani is prosecuting Google as an Internet content provider. Unlike Internet service providers, Italian penal code states that Internet content providers are responsible for the third-party content posted to their sites. This is essentially the same law regulating newspaper and television publishers.

I’ve been quite critical of very broad immunity for websites or ISPs that host defamatory or privacy invasive content of others. See Chapter 6 of The Future of Reputation. However, I find this Italian prosecution extremely troubling. And if I find it troubling, one can only imagine how apoplectic Professor Eric Goldman will be!

First, this is a criminal prosecution, and I’m generally very troubled for criminal prosecutions for defamation or privacy invasions. There might be some limited circumstances where criminal liability is warranted, though I believe that the problem is best deal with through civil liability, not criminal. While the prospect of civil liability can certainly chill speech, criminal law is an even more serious threat, and therefore, it shouldn’t be treated in the same way. Free speech protections should therefore be greater when criminal liability is involved.

Second, Google is not the content provider here. It shouldn’t be prosecuted as one. Apparently, from the reports (I haven’t seen the specific Italian law), Italy has a law that resembles Communications Decency Act (CDA), 47 U.S.C. § 230, which immunizes a website or ISP for the content posted by others. I agree with this general immunity. However, I believe that if a website or ISP is on notice that content is defamatory or invasive of privacy, then it must take down that material or lose its immunity from civil liability. Under the CDA, as interpreted by the courts, websites and ISPs are immune even after having knowledge that content posted on their sites is defamatory or invasive of privacy. I’ve argued that immunity under these circumstances is going too far. From what I’ve read, Italian law adopts the position I advocate.

But Google complied with the law and took down the videos after being notified. Thus, I don’t understand what Google did wrong. I don’t understand how it can be deemed the content provider. If Google officials can be criminally prosecuted any time a person uploads a defamatory or privacy invasive video to YouTube, it’s hard to see how they can possibly avoid running afoul of the law. YouTube and much of Web 2.0 would pose massive risks of criminal liability.

So as one who has strongly advocated for less immunity for defamatory and privacy invasive material online, even I find Italy’s prosecution of Fleischer and other Google executives to be quite outrageous and unjustified.

If anyone has a link to the Italian ISP immunity legislation in English, as well as more information about the specific criminal charges against Google, please let me know.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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