An Italian court has convicted three current and former Google executives on privacy violations, in connection with the posting of a video on its Web site. Google says it will appeal the convictions, the first against employees of the world's most popular Internet search engine.
The case was closely followed for its implications on Internet freedom in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
The case stems from a 2006 incident in which students at an Italian high school shot a video and uploaded the clip to Google's Italian Web site showing them bullying a disabled schoolmate.
The Google executives were tried in absentia, and the court sentenced them to six-month suspended sentences, but acquitted them of defamation charges.
Bill Echikson, a Google spokesman, said after Wednesday's ruling: "This is a terrible, astonishing decision. It attacks the very principle of freedom on which the Internet is built."
But prosecutor Alfredo Robledo, reflecting European concerns about privacy issues, said what was at stake was not freedom of expression on the Internet but the responsibility of companies.
"We forcefully raised the principle that the right to do business can never prevail over fundamental human rights," Robledo said. "This is the clear sense of this ruling, this is what we had asked for, and we are very satisfied."
Google says it took the video down within two hours after it had been notified by police.
But prosecutors argued that it shot to the top of the "most entertaining videos" on the Italian site and had 5,500 hits and 800 comments during the two months it was online — implying Google should have noticed it sooner.
According to Google statistics, 20 hours of video are uploaded to its sites every minute worldwide.
The four bullies were later identified, with the assistance of Google, and sentenced to community service.
Echikson said the implications of the Milan ruling would lead to pre-emptive screening, which he said is unfeasible both technically and financially. "This sort of regime, where you can post and then notice and take-down regime, allows creativity, allows the Web to flourish, as we have seen," he added.
"If this judgment stands, it will be a little like prosecuting the postman for delivering a letter you don't like the content of. Are we going to prosecute the postman? The telephone operator that carries the call where unpleasant things are said? No, obviously not," he said.
The U.S. ambassador to Italy, David Thorne, echoed that view, saying in a statement: "We are disappointed by today's decision sentencing executives of Google Inc., in connection with the posting of an offensive video on Google. 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."
He added, "The fundamental principle of Internet freedom is vital for democracies which value freedom of expression, and is protected by those who value liberty."
Italy appears to be unfriendly to the Internet: Broadband is not easily available in parts of the country, and the law requires users to show an ID before getting access at WiFi hot spots.
The ruling against Google came just as the Italian government is about to introduce a decree that would give the state control over online video content — the toughest Internet regulations in Europe.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns the biggest private TV conglomerate in Italy.
Google has been hit with a lawsuit for copyright infringement from Berlusconi's company Mediaset, which is seeking nearly $800 million in damages.
Adding to its woes, Google is facing a European Union probe after antitrust complaints filed by rival companies.