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Google’s European troubles and one good thing about the Italian case

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Wed, Feb 24, 2010 at 5:38 pm

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Google has taken a one-two punch to the chin this week from Europe first with the news that the European Commission is probing the Internet giant for possible antitrust violations followed by the conviction of three top executives for invasion of privacy by an Italian court.

The antitrust investigation centers around allegations that Google uses its search algorithms to favor its own products over those of competitors. Besides the European investigation, one of the companies, Foundem, filed comments with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission citing examples of the problem.

Google with 70 percent of the search market it is the Internet gatekeeper for many consumers. It’s algorithms and data-mining practices are an inscrutable black box.  I’m glad to see the Europeans investigating and today I wrote Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney a letter asking her to make sure finding out whether Google is manipulating search results is included in the U.S. Department of Justice’s ongoing antitrust probe of Google.

The case in Italy is troubling, however.  Google vows it and its executives will appeal and I hope they prevail.  There is an aspect of the case that I do like, though, and wish we saw the Italian approach happen more frequently in the United States.

Here’s what happened.  A group of boys beat up an autistic boy in Turin and made a video of their brutality. They posted the outrageous video on Google Video, the online service video service Google operated before it purchased YouTube.  Once the company was made aware of the video, it removed it from the site within 24 hours and cooperated with the authorities in apprehending them.

Nonetheless, Judge Oscar Magi convicted three executives, who even didn’t know of the video’s existence, until after it had been removed of violating the autistic youth’s privacy. The three convicted executives are Peter Fleischer, Google’s chief privacy counsel in Europe, David Drummond, senior vice president and chief legal officer, and George Reyes, a former chief financial officer. A fourth defendant, Arvind Desikan, charged only with defamation, was acquitted. The three received suspended six-month jail terms.

An open and free Internet relies on users’ content for its vitality. Online service providers cannot screen every users’ post before it’s offered on their site.  What is essential is that if a problem is brought to the service provider’s attention, it is dealt with promptly as Google apparently did.  Any other approach would stop the Internet dead in its tracks.  As I said, the judge’s decision is wrong and  I hope Google and its executive prevail on appeal. If they don’t it’s a bad day for the Internet in Italy.

So what’s good about the case? In Italy prosecutors can go after real people, the executives who run the company.  In the United States we go after the corporation.

I say charge the executives when their corporations flout the law.  The threat of hard time in the slammer concentrates the mind. It certainly gets your attention.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 361 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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