The trial of four Google executives charged with privacy violations opened in Milan Tuesday in a ground-breaking test of European Internet law.
None of the suspects, who risk a maximum penalty of three years in prison, was present in court and the hearing lasted only five minutes, according to one of the lawyers present.
The Google executives are accused of defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data following the posting of a cell-phone video showing a disabled teenager from Turin being harassed by four of his classmates.
"It's true that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of Google," Guido Camera, a lawyer representing a charity that assists sufferers from Down Syndrome, said in a telephone interview. "The absence of legislation in this sector makes this an important test case."
The video was posted in September 2006 and taken down two months later following a complaint by Vivi Down, the charitable organization represented by Camera.
The defendants are David Drummond, Google's senior vice president and chief legal officer, George Reyes, the company's former chief financial officer, Peter Fleischer, its global privacy counsel and Arvind Desikan, former head of Google Video Europe.
Google has expressed sympathy for the victim, a 17-year-old boy, and his family and insists the prosecution is misdirected. "We feel that bringing this case to court is totally wrong. It's akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post," it said in a statement.
"What's more, seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open Internet. We will continue to vigorously defend our employees in this prosecution."
Camera said there were very subtle legal issues at stake in the trial but there would be no question of the Google executives being sentenced to jail.
"There is no vindictive intention here. My clients are seeking an important clarification of the legal issues. The verdict will clarify whether Italy's 2003 privacy law must be respected by someone who distributes images in Italy but has his servers in the United States. It will say whether the law was applicable and whether it has been respected," he said.
Vivi Down has no desire to introduce Internet censorship, Camera insisted. In a statement issued last year the organisation explained it was merely seeking to establish whether Italian law had been violated by publication of the bullying video.
"In a democratic society freedom of expression is as sacrosanct as respect for the rules underpinning civic coexistence and the rights of others, especially when they are weak and defenceless," the statement said.
The trial has been adjourned until 18 February. If the judge accepts Google's arguments, the case could wind up on Feb. 18, Camera said. Otherwise, it could go on for months, he said.