Italian prosecutors have placed two Google Italy representatives under investigation as part of an inquiry into how a video of teenagers harassing an autistic classmate appeared on its Web site, sparking fresh debate on the clash between freedom and responsibility on the Internet.
The Google officials, whose names have not been released by authorities, are reportedly based in the U.S., and succeeded one another as the legal representatives of Google Italy when the controversial video surfaced three weeks ago.
The video showed four teenagers beating and humiliating a 17-year-old disabled boy in a classroom in the northern city of Turin. The apparent indifference of other students and the fact the film was posted in a section marked "fun videos" caused particular outrage.
The video was removed from the Web site and a judicial investigation opened after a complaint by Vividown, a charity representing sufferers from Down Syndrome. It had been brought to the charity's attention because the handicapped boy's chief tormentor was shown as saying: "I'm from Vividown," the organization's lawyer said Tuesday.
"The case is not against Google the search engine but Google the Web site," Vividown's lawyer, Guido Camera, said.
"This case has nothing to do with censorship or freedom of speech. It was simply a matter of preventing a video containing evidence of a crime being present on a Web site without anyone removing it," he said.
The decision of Milan prosecutors Francesco Cajani and Alfredo Robledo to order a search of Google's Milan offices and investigate two representatives for "omissive complicity in the crime of aggravated defamation via Internet" has however drawn parallels with other forms of publishing and sparked debate about the threat to Internet freedom.
Education Minister Giuseppe Fioroni called for urgent new laws to prevent other young people from using Internet to publicize illegal activities. "We can't have double standards, one rule for print and TV and another for Internet. Respect for human dignity is indivisible," he told reporters.
Green Party lawmaker Fiorello Cortiana disagreed. Taking action against Google was like holding directors of a public transport company responsible for the sexual harassment and theft that takes place on their vehicles, he told the ANSA news agency. "What has the Internet got to do with it? Are we saying we'd prefer not to know that these things happen?"
Editorial control over Google's content has also brought the search engine into conflict with Italy's privacy authority. The independent privacy regulator has taken up the case of an Italian woman who complained that the Google search engine brought up reports of a court case against her but failed to reveal that she had subsequently been acquitted.
The privacy commissioner, Francesco Pizzetti, has been involved in lengthy negotiations with Google to try and persuade the search engine to take greater responsibility for the quality and timeliness of its content. Correspondence between his office and Google has now been sent for study by the Milan prosecutors, a spokeswoman for the privacy authority confirmed Tuesday.
Internet anarchy came under further judicial assault last summer when a judge in the northern town of Aosta found a blogger named Generale Zhukov guilty of defamation for allegedly offensive reader comments published on his Web site. The judge ruled in June that the blogger's editorial control over his own Web site gave him the same position in law, and the same responsibilities, as a newspaper editor.