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Move over, Facebook. Now Google is caught in the middle of Italy's epic row over Sunday's violent assault on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Bloggers, netizens, and at least one news organization are claiming that the web giant has removed images of a bloodied Berlusconi from the Italian incarnation of Google Image search. On Wednesday afternoon, a blog post from Google Italia said it had not removed the pics, pointing out that it takes time for newer content to appear on Image Search, but many continue to insist that the photos appeared on the site earlier in the week.

"Yesterday, it was possible to find [the pics]. On Google Images. Not today," writes one English-language blogger, echoing the claims of many others. "The question is why?"

Google did not respond to our request for comment. But we find it hard to believe the images have been removed. The English-language Google Image search is not a place to find newsy pics that have only recently hit the web, and it would seem that Google Immagini works much the same way. You could argue this service should offer up-to-date pics. But that's a different matter.

Pics of a bloodied Berlusconi do appear in Google News and, yes, in its Italian equivalent.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was hospitalized after a man with a history of psychological problems hit him in the face with a statuette of the Milan cathedral. The incident has engendered even greater rancor between Berlusconi's supporters and his, well, mortal enemies. Naturally, the net is a prominent battleground.

Within hours of the attack on Berlusconi - which left the Prime Minister with a broken nose and two broken teeth - fan groups appeared on Facebook in support of the assailant, 42-year-old Massimo Tartaglia. On Monday, interior minister Roberto Maroni said he was mulling the possibility of having the Facebook groups blocked and launching a police investigation.

Facebook has now removed the most popular Tartaglia fan page, and it has told news outlets that it will "monitor" content related to the Berlusconi incident. "Promoting violence, or posting threatening content, is not permitted on Facebook," the site told The New York Times. "We will take quick action to respond to reports, and remove any content reported to us that makes direct threats against an individual."

The company did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Google complaints have arisen in part because the image search services offered by Microsoft and Yahoo! are showing images of Berlusconi post-attack. The question we should be asking is: Why is Google Image Search behind the times?

That said, the controversy comes as three Google execs and former CFO George Reyes face jail time after someone posted a three-minute cell-phone video to the company's Italian website in which four Turin teenagers make fun of a classmate with Down's Syndrome. The four current and former employees are charged with defamation and failure to exercise control over personal data. Google was expected to make its case today. The company has said it removed the video once it was made aware of it. ®

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