Google executives are in court today facing charges of defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data, in a case that could have broad implications for privacy standards on the internet.
The four executives standing trial in the Criminal Court of Milan are accused of allowing a clip to be posted on Google Video in Italy showing a boy with Down's Syndrome being badly bullied by four classmates.
The court case follows a two-year investigation by Italian authorities, according to the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), the US organisation that first brought the case to public attention. The executives face a maximum jail sentence of 36 months if convicted.
"It is believed to be the first criminal sanction ever pursued against a privacy professional for his company's actions," said IAPP publication director Tracey Bentley in her report.
The Google executives facing charges are global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, chief legal officer David Drummond, former chief financial officer George Reyes and an unnamed fourth executive who works at Google Video in London.
European Union legislation states that internet service providers (ISPs) are not responsible for monitoring third-party content on their sites, but must remove such content if they receive complaints.
Google removed the video within 24 hours of receiving two complaints, but Italian prosecutors have argued that the search company is an internet content provider rather than an ISP, and is therefore in breach of the same Italian law that regulates newspaper and television publishers, Bentley explained.
A Google spokesman said that the company is pleased that its co-operation led to the bullies being identified and punished, but insisted that the court case is "totally wrong".
"It is akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post," he said, arguing that it is also a "direct attack on a free, open internet".
It is perhaps ironic that it was Fleischer who drove Google's call for global privacy standards back in 2007. "As technology develops, more and more information travels around the world faster and faster each day," Fleischer said in the Google public policy blog at the time.
"Development of this kind increases the productivity of business and consumer transactions, but can potentially endanger privacy protections."
Google said that it will continue to defend its employees in this case.