Google presents defense in Italian bullying video case

The company says it responded to reports of abuse, but critics say complaints were ignored

A Google engineer appeared in court in Milan Tuesday to defend the company's conduct in connection with posting a video showing the bullying of a disabled teenager.

The video had been handled by servers in the U.S., Google staff in Italy had not been involved in the process, and the video was removed as soon as Google received a report of abuse about it, Jeremy Doig, one of the engineers who helped create Google Video, told the court.

The three-minute mobile-phone video was posted by Google in 2006 and four Google executives -- chief legal officer David Drummond, privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, former Chief Financial Officer George Reyes and former head of Google Video Europe Arvind Desikan -- are on trial in Milan for defamation and violation of Italy's privacy law.

Google staff monitored the content of videos before they were posted and the company responded rapidly to reports of abuse coming from its users, Doig told the court, according to lawyers present at the closed-door hearing.

"Doig told the court that the offensive video was eliminated in just two-and-a-half hours from when the company first received a complaint," Giuliano Pisapia, a lawyer representing Google, said in a telephone interview.

The first complaint was received from a user and almost immediately afterward the company was contacted by the police, who had been alerted to the video by Vividown, a charitable organization representing the interests of Down Syndrome sufferers, Pisapia said.

The film, which was shown in court Tuesday, showed a handicapped teenage boy being harassed by four classmates in his Turin high school.

The boy did not actually suffer from Down Syndrome and has withdrawn as a plaintiff from the case against Google.

Pisapia said it was difficult to tell from the film that the boy was handicapped. Vividown became involved because at one point in the film one of the bullies pretended to telephone, saying "We are from Vividown. Look at this Mongoloid boy, come and collect him," Pisapia said.

The boy had been bullied at school for two years and had been hugely relieved when Google's collaboration with the police enabled the identification of his tormentors.

"From that moment on he was reborn. An unpleasant incident has given rise to something positive," Pisapia said. The Google lawyer said Italian law did not require the prior monitoring of digital content before it is posted to the Internet but only that content providers remove offensive material at the request of the judicial authorities and assist in identifying the perpetrators of a crime, as Google had done in this case.

Critics say Google allowed the offensive video to remain online for two months despite complaints from users.

"Those complaints were in comments posted under the video. They were not reports of abuse," Pisapia said. "I think the hearing went very well," he said.

Guido Camera, a lawyer representing Vividown on the basis that the organization was defamed in the fake telephone call contained in the video, said the hearing had not gone entirely Google's way.

"Numerous significant aspects emerged from a technical point of view," Camera said. "The crux of the case concerns what happened before the complaint was lodged and the way sensitive personal data was handled. I can't say in all sincerity that what we saw today was a triumph for the theories of the defense. Let's wait and see what the verdict has to say."

The trial was adjourned until Nov. 25, when prosecutors Alfredo Robledo and Francesco Cajani will deliver their summing up.

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Philip Willan

IDG News Service
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