Italian Court Conviction of Google Executives Overturned

January 14, 2013

Google in ItalyAn Italian court of appeals in Milan recently overturned the conviction of three Google executives who were prosecuted based on online content deemed to be in violation of Italian law.  In a case with notable implications for online commerce, the court determined that the Americans were not liable for user-generated content which had been uploaded on the YouTube web site owned by Google.

In 2006, video documenting teenagers beating an autistic student was uploaded by users on YouTube.  Although the video was promptly removed from the site, consistent with YouTube content takedown procedures, the three Google executives were prosecuted under Italian privacy law.

The three defendants were convicted in 2010.  They each received a six month prison sentence.  The sentences were suspended by the court.

The convictions caused substantial concern in the Internet commerce community.  Many observers noted that attribution of liability for user-generated content to employees of organizations engaged in online activities would have a significant adverse impact on online activity.

The convictions were appealed.  Late in 2012, the Italian court of appeals overturned the convictions.

This case illustrates both the scope and the limits of legal efforts to address online activities.  It also highlights the difficulties associated with effective oversight of online communities.

Laws and regulations enforced by individual nations now have substantial international reach.  In this case, privacy requirements implemented inItalywere enforced against senior managers of a major American company.

At the same time, the ultimate effectiveness of the laws governing online activities is often limited.  For example, the privacy protections provided by Italian law and applied in this case do not appear to be entirely appropriate in the online environment which is rich with user-generated content.  It is not at all clear that holding company executives legally responsible for user-generated content will actually reduce the amount of objectionable online content.

This case provides a cautionary tale underscoring the fact that national laws and regulations directed toward Internet activities can be both too broad and too limited, at the same time.  Laws implemented by one nation can have an adverse impact on the global Internet, yet at the same time fail to address meaningfully the objectionable activities which were the target of the laws.  This paradox presents one of the critical challenges to the development and implementation of effective systems to manage online conduct.