Three top Google executives have been convicted in Italy for violating the privacy of a teenager with Down's Syndrome.
The outcome of the case is likely to have broad implications for privacy standards on the internet, and Google is protesting against the verdict.
The executives had faced charges of defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data after a clip was posted on Google Video in Italy showing a boy with Down's Syndrome being bullied by four classmates.
European Union legislation states that internet service providers (ISPs) are not responsible for monitoring third-party content on their sites, but must remove such content if they receive complaints.
Google removed the video within 24 hours of receiving two complaints, but Italian prosecutors argued that the search company is an internet content provider, rather than an ISP, and is therefore in breach of the same Italian law that regulates newspaper and television publishers.
The case followed a two-year investigation by Italian authorities, and the maximum jail sentence for such charges is three years.
Three of the Google executives involved in the case - chief legal officer David Drummond, global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and former chief financial officer George Reyes - have been given six-month suspended jail sentences for privacy violations, while a fourth, former Google Video European director Arvind Desikan, has been acquitted.
None of the executives were convicted of defamation.
The case is believed to be the first criminal sanction ever pursued against a privacy professional for his company's actions.
Matt Sucherman, Google's European vice president and deputy general counsel, said in a blog post that the ruling means employees of hosting platforms, such as Google Video, are now criminally responsible for content uploaded by users. He also claimed that European law had been ignored.
"We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question," he said.
"Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming.
He added that European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbour from liability, so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence.
"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 - the web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear," he argued.
Two of the Google executives have made personal statements about their convictions.
"I am outraged by the decision of a judge in Milan today that I am criminally responsible for violating the privacy rights of an autistic schoolboy. I intend to vigorously appeal this dangerous ruling. It sets a chilling precedent," said Drummond.
"If individuals like myself and my Google colleagues, who had nothing to do with the harassing incident, its filming or its uploading onto Google Video, can be held criminally liable solely by virtue of our positions at Google, every employee of any internet hosting service faces similar liability."
Fleischer added: "I knew nothing about the video until after it was removed by Google in compliance with European and Italian law.
"I was very saddened by the plight of the boy in the video, not least as I have devoted my professional life to preserving and protecting personal privacy rights."
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