Italy Convicts Google Execs To Protect Privacy
LIANE HANSEN, host:
While American users debate just how personal personalized searches should be, Europeans are debating the overall reach of the Internet into their lives. An Italian court recently convicted three Google executives for privacy violations, after a clip was posted on Google Video showing a disabled student being bullied by classmates in Turin.
The ruling highlights a deep trans-Atlantic cultural gap. Americans see the ruling as undermining the concept of freedom of expression, while Europeans put privacy first; they consider it a fundamental human right.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this letter from Europe.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The Italian ruling came at a time when European countries are increasingly weary of the free-wheeling Internet. Just days after the Italian court convicted the Google executives, the Italian government issued a decree that states that Web sites that have commercial purposes will require government authorization.
Italy is not the only country trying to set limits on the Web. The French parliament is currently debating a bill that would give the state unprecedented control over the Internet, and would make online service providers liable for content uploaded by third parties. Similar legislation has been approved in Germany.
In America, the concept of free speech is given the honor of being the very first amendment to the Bill of Rights. In the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, privacy protection has primacy over freedom of expression.
This is a reflection of the continent's recent dark history, when totalitarian regimes - the Nazis and the Fascist first and later in Eastern Europe, the Communist - kept their citizenry under constant police surveillance. Fear of a Big Brother intrusion is ever present.
In Germany, Google is under fire for its Street View service, which offers panoramic photos of city streets worldwide. The Consumer Protection minister has called for a law to protect citizens against what she called a million-fold violation of the private sphere. And just last week, Germany's constitutional court overturned a European Union anti-terrorism law that requires six months storage of data on telephone calls, text message and e-mails.
The E.U. law is seen as Europe's version of the Patriot Act and touches such sensitive issues that six European states have not even implemented it.
The Germany ruling stemmed from an appeal filed by an unprecedented 35,000 plaintiffs. The court said the law marked a grave intrusion into personal privacy rights and must be re-written. And it ordered the immediate destruction of all data currently in storage.
The data protection ruling is also the latest setback in trans-Atlantic cooperation in combating terrorism. Just two weeks ago, the European parliament voted against allowing U.S. authorities access to European bank transfers to track down terror cells.
But the German ruling on data protection, like the Italian conviction of Google's executives, was hailed by many European citizens who see it as a potential wakeup call for governments on the need to protect citizens' privacy.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.