Europe’s law courts round on Google

Last weekend’s glitch, that made the Google search engine treat almost every single website on the Internet as a security risk, was leapt on by many – including us – as a sign at last that the infallible tech giant was human, so to speak.

But at Google HQ, they have much bigger things to worry about.

For one thing, four Google executives are currently facing the prospect of hard time in an Italian jail. The company’s general counsel Peter Fleisch and three other big wigs have been charged with defamation and failure to protect privacy.

The charges relate to an incident in September 2006 when a video showing a 17-year-old with Down’s syndrome being bullied by other children was uploaded to the Google Video site.

Two months after it was uploaded, authorities received complaints and instructed Google to remove the video, which it did immediately.

But according to Italian authorities, Google’s failure to remove the video earlier constitutes a failure to protect the boy’s privacy. That could land executives in prison for up to 36 months. Google has described the charges as ‘totally wrong’.

Meanwhile, a court in France has fined Google €350,000 for allowing businesses to buy adverts that appear against trademarked phrases owned by other companies.

In this case, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy and Meridien Hotels complained that adverts for their competitors appeared when users searched for their trademarked mottos, (‘voyageur du monde’ and ‘terres aventure’).

Although it has had its fair share of legal battles in the US too, Europe is proving to be a minefield for Google as it strives to realise its mission “to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The EU itself has questioned the legality of Google’s IP address retention policy, and some experts believe the Google StreetView service may contravene EU privacy laws.

Add to that the perennial question of whether of the EU’s Data Protection Act and the US’ Patriot Act are incompatible, and one begins to wonder whether the model of a single global repository of information is untenable, given the fractious reality of the global society.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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