Three Google executives have been convicted of violating Italian privacy law because of a children’s bullying video posted briefly by Google in 2006. Although Google took down the offending video of several children in Turin cruelly taunting a mentally disabled boy, and subsequently helped authorities to identify and convict the person who posted the video, three executives were convicted today of violating privacy. A fourth employee who has since left the company had his charges dropped, which seems to indicate that a political point is being made. The executives in question are outraged, and former UK Information Commissioner Richard Thomas is quoted as saying the episode makes a mockery of privacy laws.
For years I’ve observed that Italy always pushes for the most extreme EU version of laws about privacy and security and then domestically gold-plates them into laws that would seem more at home in Turkmenistan. It makes other Europeans scratch their heads as the Italians generally aren’t willing or able to enforce their draconian laws. Several years ago over a pint in Brussels, an exasperated UK official told me ‘the Italians have no intention of ever implementing this stuff, but we’re a common law country and if it’s on the books, we actually have to do it’.
Update: Milton Mueller has an interesting take on the decision and makes the point that the E-Commerce Directive has not aged well in an era of user-generated content.
For years, the Italians have chipped away domestically at essential principles of European Internet law such as ‘mere conduit’ – the idea that a postal service or telco isn’t responsible for the content of communications it carries – and ‘no prior authorisation’, the ban on requiring websites or other information society service providers to somehow register with the government before they launch. This seems like a particular instance of the more general ills of Berlusconi’s Italy.
For much of the past decade, Italy provided some of the most compelling characters in European privacy circles. Most influential on the data protection side was Stefano Rodota, chair of the influential Article 29 Working Party, a dour man who never met a company or piece of new technology he seemed to like the look of. For all of Rodota’s firm views on the need to buttress data protection against changing business models and mores, he couldn’t reverse the inexorable tide of opportunistic law enforcement legislation that followed September 11.
Many will remember Rocco Buttiglione, the hardline conservative proposed as Commissioner of the ironically named DG Justice, Freedom and Security. Buttiglione’s antipathy to gays and his extremist Catholic views about the role of women almost brought down the new Commission. He was eventually withdrawn and Berlosconi instead put in Franco Frattini who oversaw four years of extraordinary policy laundering and the persistent undermining of Europeans’ civil rights. During the Danish cartoon episode, Frattini had a hard time defending freedom of speech, a concept to which he is not temperamentally close. He was far happier trying to ban video games or monitor Internet content.
My stand-out favourite was the dashing but not entirely reliable MEP, Marco Cappato. He was elected as part of the Lista Bonino of the Italian radical party which campaigns for social and economic libertarianism. (By which I mean actual libertarianism, not the pretendy American ‘I’m really a Republican but don’t want to call myself one’ or ‘I’ve already got enough power and money and would rather not pay any tax, thanks’ types of libertarianism.) Cappato was a glamourous figure in the European Parliament, with his sexy human rights issues, unruly Dr McDreamy hair and indiscriminate flirting.* Cappato’s energy and stylishness fed the suspicion that he preferred rhetoric and PR stunts to the hard grunt of parliamentary process. But he achieved at least as much for the European Parliament and for privacy as anyone else could have as parliament’s rapporteur for the directive on data protection and electronic communication, which is to say not an awful lot.
The odd thing about the Italians in Brussels is that they seemed always to propose quite extreme privacy protections at the same time as draconian measures of state surveillance and intervention. Until today, I’d long thought Italy mostly likes to keep lots of potentially invasive and contradictory privacy and surveillance laws on the books but only threaten to implement them. The inscrutable power plays that motivate Italy’s murky judicial system mean we can only speculate about why a prosecution was taken against Google just now for what is, sadly, an every day occurrence.
Today’s ruling reminds me that Italy’s elite has an utterly different conception of when and how the state should act. More than most other laws, privacy laws define the relationship between the individual and the state. Not only is it difficult or impossible to reach European agreement on privacy laws and how they should be used; the very act of trying exposes a deep, strange gulf of difference.
- I’d met Marco at various hearings and meetings in Brussels a couple of years before he finally got around to making a fairly workmanlike pass at me during the Internet Governance Forum in Geneva in 2003. I remember being a bit miffed that he’d taken so bloody long.