A first commentary on the Google – Vividown trial

Today the Court of Milan made public the decision in the criminal trial against four Google executives, charged of defamation and illegal personal data handling in relationship to the publication on the video sharing platform of a video containing act of bullyism against a person affected by the Down Syndrome.

The legal basis for the charges, following the prosecutor’s theory of the case, was that those executives failed to exercise a pre-emptive control over the contents published by Google final users’, thus allowing the infringement of the reputation of the concerned person and of an NGO representing Down-Syndrome-affected persons.

The Court acquitted all the defendant from the charges of defamation, while found them liable of the illegal personal data handling charge. The whole sentence (including the legal technicalities that support the decision) will be public within the next 30 days.

This indictment is the last component of a long series of court decisions that kill Network Neutrality and turn ISPs and Telcos into Digital Vigilantes while, in the meantime, no actual protection is given to the victims of online crimes.

The Peppermint and The Pirate Bay cases, the legal argument against Youtube and the one between an entertainment-backed lobbying group by one side and Telecom Italia, the ISP’s association and the Data Protection Authority on the opposite and – finally – this indictment are all linked through the same connection: to erode the absence of the legal duty to preemptively contol internet users’ activity established by the UE directive on e-commerce.

What is bizarre, in this Google trial, is that for the very first time the existence of the ISP’s duty to perform a mass-control of user activities has been asserted thank to the data protection regulation. The same data protection regulation that forbade the disclosure of the identities of people allegedly accused by the entertainment industry of copyright infringement through P2P networks.

Is still to early to understand the Court mind (since the basis for the decision will be disclosed within the next 30 days. It is, nevertheless possible to try an educated guess based on the Court records. To put it short, here is a probable explanation for the decision:

1 – there is a rule of law into the Criminal Code that says: to not stop a fact equals to cause it,
2 – data protection law requires a prior authorization to be obtained before handling personal data,
3 – a video to be posted online is personal data,
4 – therefore Google executives had to check whether the user who posted the video got the preemptive authorisation from the people of the video, and
5 – by failing to do so, they infringed the data protection law
6 – furthermore, by not controlling in advance, they let the video to libel the victim of the violence (this charge has been dismissed.)

It is too early to assess the damages provoked by this decision, but it is not unreasonable to imagine that – should this court decision become “case law” – the telco market will suffer an alteration of the competion among the various players. The smallest one can’t handle the increasing risk (and cost) of being sued or investing in momentum-generating policies. Big international players might find Italy a lesser attractive place to do business in.