Italian ruling on Google worries US

Bloomberg News / March 3, 2010

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WASHINGTON - An Italian judge’s conviction last month of two managers and a former executive of Google Inc. for privacy violations may set a precedent that could restrict the flow of Internet information, US officials said yesterday.

“We are clearly concerned about the ramifications,’’ said Michael Posner, an assistant secretary at the Department of State.

A judge in Milan, Oscar Magi, ruled Feb. 24 that the Google staffers shared responsibility for a clip uploaded to Google Video in 2006 by a group of Turin students who filmed themselves bullying an autistic classmate.

David Drummond, a Google senior vice president, Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel, and George Reyes, a former chief financial officer, were sentenced to six-month terms, which were suspended. They denied any wrongdoing.

David Weitzner, an associate administrator at the Commerce Department, said requiring Internet companies to police content would slow the Web’s growth. “The Internet really would grind to a halt,’’ he said.

Weitzner and Posner testified yesterday before a Senate subcommittee on Internet censorship. While siding with Google, senators said Internet companies, in general, need to do more to ensure they’re not carrying out a country’s censorship agenda.

Senator Richard Durbin, the subcommittee’s chairman, said he would introduce a bill to require Web companies to “take reasonable steps’’ to protect human rights.

“With a few notable exceptions, the technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling even to engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges that the industry faces,’’ he said.

Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said more companies need to join the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary set of standards for ensuring Internet users’ human rights. He said few companies have followed the lead of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to be involved with GNI.

Congress has a “responsibility to ensure that American companies are not complicit in violating freedom of expression,’’ he said.