Whose Privacy?

Three Google executives were convicted in Italian courts today for violating privacy laws: David C. Drummond (senior vice president), George De Los Reyes (former chief financial officer), and Peter Fleischer (privacy director). The Telegraph has a review of the trial that found the three executives guilty of allowing a video, of a disabled Italian boy being beaten, to be posted on YouTube — which is owned by Google. This decision is being framed by prosecutors as a triumph for privacy:

The protection of an individual is fundamental to today’s society and business freedom should never come above that of person’s dignity and that is what this trial has shown.

I agree, entirely, with the first part of that statement — but when the prosecutor argues “… and that is what this trial has shown” I have to ask myself: what trial is he talking about? Whose dignity is being protected here? Certainly not the dignity of a wired society who is likely to face greater surveillance and censorship as a result of this irresponsible ruling. And, certainly not the dignity of that poor boy who can not “delete” his memories of that horrible act of violence. Of all the serious privacy issues associated with the practices of corporations like Google (see here) and Facebook (see here), and governments like the U.S. (see here and here) and China (see here), how does this qualify as a triumph for privacy when it has the potential to further erode individual privacy on the Internet?

Peter Fleischer is quoted in the Telegraph as saying he found it ironic that “as privacy director I have been found guilty of breaching privacy.” With respect to Fleischer, that’s not ironic — it’s to be expected that the person in charge of privacy policies for the most prominent global information company would find himself (fairly or unfairly) held accountable for those policies. What’s ironic is that three Google executives were convicted for violating privacy laws in an instance where they actually didn’t violate anyone’s privacy, and that conviction has the potential to further compromise individual privacy. Now, that’s irony.

Labour MP Tom Watson said it best in the Telegraph:

This is the biggest threat to internet freedom we have seen in Europe. The only people who will support this decision are Silvio Berlusconi and the governments of China and Iran. It effectively breaks the internet in Italy.

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