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Originally published Friday, February 26, 2010 at 2:59 PM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

Italy's prosecution of Google execs could hurt flow of Internet information

The Italian prosecution of Google executives on privacy charges raises serious questions about how such policies could undermine the Internet, writes Editorial Page Editor Ryan Blethen. Imagine how little the world would know about Iran if Twitter had to approve all the tweets after the last election.

Times editorial page editor

THERE was a curious development in the already puzzling case of Google versus Italy.

Last week, a court in Milan convicted three Google executives of violating privacy laws. It doesn't seem like they did, but that didn't stop Italian prosecutors.

The criminal convictions sprang from an incident in which a group of Italian school kids uploaded a video to Google Video. The video showed them bullying an autistic classmate. Tacky, tasteless, cruel — there is a never-ending string of adjectives to describe their callous behavior.

Google took down the video immediately after being notified by the police. The bullies were identified with the help of Google and were sentenced to community service.

Apparently, punishing those responsible wasn't enough. Four Google executives were indicted on criminal charges of defamation and of violating privacy laws.

The executives — Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond, former Chief Financial Officer George Reyes, and London-based Google Video executive Arvind Desikan — were tried on criminal charges in absentia. None of the executives was found guilty of defamation and Desikan beat all the charges.

Having three Google employees convicted on the privacy charges could have a chilling effect on the Internet. These are three people who had nothing to do with the video. Their company hosted the video.

Matt Sucherman, Google's vice president and deputy general counsel for Europe, Middle East and Africa raised a salient point. If a system of notification-and-take-down is replaced by one in which Google has to approve everything that is uploaded on its sites, the Internet won't work.

"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," Sucherman wrote on the Google Policy Blog last week.

The cynic in me wonders if Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi left fingerprints on the case. He owns nearly all of the country's private media and as prime minister influences Italy's public media.

Berlusconi's critics worry that he is pushing for greater control of the media by clamping down on the Internet.

The ruling isn't a major concern for Google employees in the United States. We have laws that protect Internet Service Providers and content-hosting sites. My worry is that governments that don't want an open Internet will mimic the Italian courts. This would have negative effects beyond those nations.

Think of it. If Twitter had to review every tweet from protesters in Iran last year, the world would know a lot less about what was happening inside a postelection Iran.

Like it or not, the Internet doesn't function as intended when nannied into irrelevance. The Web has become the public square. Nations that don't treat it as such will be left behind.

Ryan Blethen's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:

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