On Wednesday, an Italian court convicted three Google executives. Their crime? Google failed, in the eyes of the prosecutor, to pull down a video uploaded to Google Video.

The video, which showed several students in Turin bullying a classmate with Autism, resulted in 10 months of community service for the uploader. But because Google 'allowed' the video to be uploaded in the first place, an Italian prosecutor chose to charge four Google executives for criminal defamation and the violation of Italian privacy laws.

The employees found guilty are Google's chief legal officer, chief financial officer and chief privacy counsel. They are not based in Italy and were not even directly involved in the day-to-day operations of Google Video. Because they have no prior criminal convictions in Italy, they will not serve any time under Italian law.

But their conviction has served as a wake-up call. In the typical countries in which these services are popular, there are laws that shield service providers from liabilities relating to content that users upload. Here, Google removed the video in question when it received a complaint, which in most countries is sufficient to avoid legal headaches.

Vowing to appeal the decision, Google wrote on its blog:

...we are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.

Not surprisingly, others are concerned about what has happened, although it's unclear whether this really represents a precedent-setting incident or will simply go down as one of those head-scratchers global legal systems throw at us from time to time.

But this case does serve as a good reminder to companies that work with UGC. While service providers do have protections in many countries, the situation in Italy highlights the fact that UGC can still create legal problems. Dominic Sparkes, MD of Tempero, a company that provides online moderation services, noted:

Many publishers feel the risk of not moderating and relying on alerts from users is worth taking with ‘safe harbour’ providing a cushion against prosecution.  This case has potentially created a landmark ruling for those reactively moderating content on their sites and will send a warning shot across the bows of those operating within Social Media.

Obviously, Tempero is in the business of helping companies with online moderation so it's not surprising that it sees a larger potential threat in the Italian Google ruling, but I do think it's reasonable to argue that companies can't assume that UGC comes without legal risk. To that end, Tempero released an e-book entitled User-generated Content & The Law this week, which addresses some of the laws that have relevance to UGC and discusses the risks they can pose to companies.

Hopefully, the convictions against the Google executives will be overturned, if for no other reason that they're only symbolic. In the meantime, companies involved with UCG should be aware that what they don't say can and may be used against them in some courts of law.

Photo credit: dlisbona via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 25 February, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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