Italian authorities are targeting two Google executives over videos the site displayed showing a disabled youth being abused.
Although users post items on Google Inc.'s video service without the company's prior approval, Milan prosecutors are targeting the executives for failing to control content on their sites. The case comes despite European law, adopted by Italy in 2003, specifying that Internet providers are not responsible for controlling content published on their service.
The executives are not named, but are identified as the legal representatives for Google Italia Srl, the Mountain View, Calif., company's Italian arm.
The probe has prompted a proposal in Italy to limit Internet postings of images by youths under the age of 17, while others warn of stifling innovation.
"As far as I understand, the entire European Union has decided there is no responsibility for the Internet provider for content,"
"You can't blame the Internet for being a means of diffusing something whose causes lay somewhere else," said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffe, president of Assodigitale, a think-tank on digital technology. "You can't blame the manufacturer of paper because someone prints an insult on it."
Maffe said such problems create "a strong disincentive to invest in this country, to develop value-added services on the Internet or on the mobile."
The Milan investigation was sought by Vividown, an advocacy group for Downs Syndrome. Vividown was alerted to the pair of videos in early September by someone who had come across them on Google Italia's video site.
In one, an autistic youth is being mistreated, and someone puts in a mock telephone call to Vividown.
The video was shot in a classroom in the northern city of Turin, and four youths involved are the subject of a criminal investigation.
Vividown President Edoardo Cenzi said that although Google removed the content within 12 hours after they reported its existence to authorities, the group took further action because "we don't believe these videos should be circulated without controls."
Stefano Hesse, a spokesman for Google Italia, said Google was cooperating with authorities.
"From a legal point of view, there is a European law that says we are not responsible for content," Hesse said. "We don't want to hide behind laws. We want to do the best thing for our users."
Google is developing technologies to help identify illegal or offensive content, Hesse said, but said that at the moment the most effective filter are users who flag material they deem inappropriate.
"We have clear policies about content and we always remove what we think is illegal content and what our users flag as illegal content," Hesse said. But he acknowledged that sometimes what is deemed offensive varies by culture.
"It could be religious. It could be pornography. It depends on the culture or the way of thinking of the people looking at the video, since it is a worldwide platform," Hesse said.
He declined to comment further on the Milan investigation, saying he had not yet received the court documents or been formally informed of the identities of the executives being investigated. Hesse said he believes they are based at Google's headquarters in the United States.