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Google Filters Sites in France and Germany

Search giant Google removes results on its local search engines for over a hundred sites that might be illegal under French and German law, according to research published Thursday by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Researchers found the filtering by comparing results of more than a thousand searches on Google.com for controversial sites, such as the neo-Nazi group Stormfront, with the results for the same search on Google.fr and Google.de, Google's sites in France and Germany. In 113 instances, Berkman Center found the sites were omitted from the search results on the local sites, but not on the Google.com site.

"We found that when they omit a site, they don't tell the user that something's missing," Berkman Center Chief Technologist Ben Edelman told internetnews.com. "They simply presented the search results as if nothing happened."

To avoid legal liability, Google "removes sites from its Google.de and Google.fr indexes that may conflict with local laws," a Google statement said. "We occasionally receive notices from partners, users, government agencies, and the like, about sites in our index. We carefully consider any credible complaint on a case-by-case basis and take necessary action when needed -- we only react to requests that come to us."

Google would not say how many sites it had removed from the German and French indexes.

The research, co-authored by Edelman and Harvard Professor Jonathan Zittrain, found 65 sites blocked from both Google.fr and Google.de, as well as an additional 48 removed from the French site.

While Google's search results would likely find protection in the United States under the First Amendment, French and German laws often ban the dissemination of material deemed pro-Nazi.

Yahoo was mired last year in a long legal battle in France over the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. In 2000, a French hosting company was sued for a pro-Nazi sites hosted on its servers.

Google has been forced to sidestep legal controversy closer to home. In April, the company's search engine removed some Scientology-related information after the group threatened legal action under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In that instance, Google alerted readers that search results were omitted, linking instead to the letter threatening the company with legal action.

"In the same spirit of communication and openness that Google demonstrated with the DMCA related issues, Google is exploring new ways to communicate issues related to the removal of sites that may conflict with local laws," a Google spokesman said.

"There might be some better middle ground mentioning what was removed," Edelman said. "I don't envy Google at all."