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Italy's anti-trust watchdog is investigating Google's treatment of local newspapers on the Italian versions of its news site and search engine.

On Thursday, as reported by Reuters, the country's competition authority announced its Google probe after a complaint from the Italian Federation of Newspaper Editors (FIEG). According to the complaint, if a publisher chooses not to appear on the Italian version of Google News, Google will automatically exclude them from its primary search engine as well.

Various Italian newspapers feel that when their stories turn up on Google News, this damages their ability to "attract users and advertisers to their own home pages." But apparently, they don't feel the same way about Google's main search engine.

At best, this makes almost no sense. You could certainly argue that as an über-middleman, Google cuts into the ad revenue a newspaper can collect, and some sharp minds have certainly done so. But excluding yourself from Google News isn't going to help this problem. And even if you're convinced that it will, surely you would apply the same twisted logic to Google's main search engine.

Nonetheless, the newspapers want to appear on Google Search but not on Google News. And according to the complaint, Google won't let them.

When we asked Google for comment on the Italian probe, it pointed us to a blog post where the company says it's still reviewing the complaint. The post explains that newspapers can remove themselves from Google News at any time. And naturally, Google continues to make the argument that Google News actually increases traffic to third-party news sites.

"We respect the wishes of content owners, which is why we've made it easy to opt out of our services," writes Google's Josh Cohen. "However, when it comes to Google News, we have far more requests for inclusion than for removal. That's because publishers understand that the traffic generated by Google News, and services like it, provide valuable traffic: Google News sends over 1 billion clicks per month to news publishers."

But Cohen does not address the accusation that Google is systematically excluding papers from its search engine if they opt out of the Italian Google News.

The Italian Federation of Newspaper Editors includes the country's two largest newspaper outfits: RCS MediaGroup and L'Espresso. Earlier this year, the two inked a deal to pool their online advertising in an effort to boost revenues, and now they're desperately hoping to boost revenue in other ways.

No word on whether a horse's head has appeared in Google's bed. ®

Update

A Google spokesman now tells us that "if news organizations ask us to remove them as a source in Google News, the Google web search algorithm will not treat them any differently."

One wonders if Italian newspapers have noticed that if they're removed from Google News, they no longer turn up in the Google News-powered news results that show up on Google's main search engine.

In which case, their complaint makes even less sense than we thought

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