The Italian government is attempting to make web-based dissent a crime, says Cecilia Anesi
A new bill has come before the Senate, giving the interior ministry the power to order Internet providers to remove criminal content within 24 hours or face a fine of up to 250,000 euros.
This is not something happening in China or in Burma, but rather in Italy, a member of the European Union. Senator Gianpiero D’Alia introduced the measure after the Italian press reported on the existence of Facebook fan groups for convicted Corleone-born Mafia bosses Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, who have been convicted of dozens of homicides and are serving multiple life sentences in prison.
After Facebook expressed its concern about Italy’s proposed law to force Internet providers to block access to websites that incite or justify criminal behaviour, D’Alia replied that the aim is not to block sites like Facebook or YouTube in their entirety if they contain criminal content. Rather, the senator explained, the law is intended to force them to remove individual pages or groups.
However, the text of the bill is misleading, as it does not distinguish between blocking pages and entire websites. This makes the law extremely flawed, as Marco Pancini, the European Public Policy Counsel for Google, which owns YouTube, has said. Internet providers are not able to eliminate single elements from websites, and this means blocking entire platforms in a situation where Internet providers themselves are not left with any choice but to respect orders for the removal of an unlawful site.
However, YouTube already has the ability to eliminate potentially criminal or offensive material and since April 2003 Italian law has stipulated that material must be removed immediately once a website is informed about illicit material in its domain.
As Pancini explains in an interview for Italian newspaper Repubblica, it is already possible to punish the people responsible for a crime, especially where the penal system says that penal responsibility is personal. However pushing for collective punishment such as the closure of Facebook seems more to do with halting freedom of expression.
It is obvious that upon receipt of an order to remove a ‘criminal page’, Fastweb SpA, Telecom Italia SpA, or Tiscali SpA will not contact the author, as time restraints will not permit them to do so, and that they will thus be forced to shut down the entire service, with the possibility of restoring service once the crisis is over.
This new law is not just about 433 members praising Provenzano on Facebook: it is a law that seeks to establish a crime of expression. If this law enters into statute, it could mean the closure of entire websites containing alternative information, or rather unfiltered information, which is much needed in Italy today.
Facebook might be concerned but it is much more likely that such a bill could be used to shut down websites like www.chiaianodiscarica.it instead. The site is civil society’s answer to all the wrongdoings and the incompetence surrounding the waste crisis in Naples, which, contrary to the government’s official claims, is far from over.
As one co-author of the website said: ‘If in Italy an ordinary citizen, whose job has nothing to do with journalism, has to start disseminating information where there is a complete lack of it, then you understand there is something wrong going on out there. Our work is at an amateur level, we do not have advertising on the website, we just do what is needed and offer the people what the mainstream media do not.’
‘I am very worried about this new bill, not for me, but rather for all those people who rely on us as a source of information,’ he adds.
The Internet has provided people with the option of creating citizen journalism, especially in those contexts where, due to state censorship or self-censorship, the media lack the ability to inform the public. A website like chiaianodiscarica.it obviously does not contain any criminal content. However, lately, Italian laws seem to change according to government interests, and we cannot be too sure about whether instigating a demonstration will soon also be prosecuted as a crime. The Prodi government made a state secret of the ashes produced by incinerators, and if you publish any information about them you are committing a crime. Now Berlusconi’s government proposes to censor the Internet whenever criminal content is found. It is an interesting follow-up.