Google, privacy and free speech

by Vault Law Editors | March 01, 2010

  • My Vault

Last week, an Italian court sentenced three Google executives—including a former global privacy counsel and the company’s chief legal officer—six-month suspended sentences for violations of the country’s privacy code.  The Times’ Adam Liptak characterizes the decision as a fundamental between the EU’s sanctification of “privacy” and the U.S. Constitution’s free speech guarantees:

Last week’s ruling from an Italian court that Google executives had violated Italian privacy law by allowing users to post a video on one of its services ... called attention to the profound European commitment to privacy, one that threatens the American conception of free expression and could restrict the flow of information on the Internet to everyone. [...]

“The framework in Europe is of privacy as a human-dignity right,” said Nicole Wong, a lawyer with [Google]. “As enforced in the U.S., it’s a consumer-protection right.” [...]

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” The First Amendment’s distant cousin comes later, in Article 10.

Americans like privacy, too, but they think about it in a different way, as an aspect of liberty and a protection against government overreaching, particularly into the home. Continental privacy protections, by contrast, focus on protecting people from having their lives exposed to public view, especially in the mass media.

The decision hinged on a categorical question.  Italian law relieves internet service providers of liability  for user-generated content. However, internet content providers are a different story—they are responsible for the things they “publish.” Google had argued that it falls into the former category, but the judge ruled otherwise.

Is this a big deal?  It would seem so, if any company that's not explicitly an ISP could be held criminally responsible for content uploaded by users* (no matter how quicly it is taken down after a complaint—and in this case, Google took the offending video** down upon notice.

Googel, predictably, says YES, this is a big deal: "[The decision] attackes the very principals of freedom on which the Internet is built," says Google's VP and Deputy General Counsel Matt Sucherman.

The Associated Press floats the idea that "when it comes to letting the Web be the Web, it could be the Unted States against the world." (But then offers little to support this scenario.)

Tom Krazit says hold the panic: "[This case is a one-off example of why data protection laws need to take into account the 21st century notion of the Internet." 

In any event, Google will of course appeal, so watch this space.

-posted by brian

*According to Google, on YouTube alone, 20 hours of video are uploaded every minute.

**The video showed a child with Down Syndrome being bullied. Not that it would change the legal or moral analysis, but a weird aspect of this story is that seemingly half of the media is reporting that the child had autism, which seems a strange point of fact to botch in 2010.

Filed Under: Law

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