Three Google executives were convicted of violating Italian privacy laws on Wednesday, the first case to hold the company’s executives criminally responsible for the content posted on its system.
The verdict, though subject to appeal, could have sweeping implications worldwide for Internet freedom: It suggests that Google is not simply a tool for its users, as it contends, but is effectively no different from any other media company, like newspapers or television, that provides content and could be regulated.
The ruling further complicates the business environment for Google in Europe, where it faces a wave of antitrust complaints. And it comes shortly after Google threatened to withdraw from China, citing sophisticated attacks by hackers there and Chinese demands that it restrict information available to local users.
Google’s enormous search and advertising business depends heavily on its reach into every corner of the global Internet and on providing users access to as much digital content as possible, regardless of its origins or ownership.
The Italian move to hold the company or its executives responsible for text, photographs or videos made available by third parties through Google and its online services, like YouTube, poses a significant challenge to the company’s business model, along with those of other Internet companies like Facebook and Twitter.