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Italy: NO to Restrictions on Online Free Speech

No 'gag rule' for the NetWhile the recent WikiLeaks experience [EN] reveals aspirations to build “information freedom zones” with some help from Iceland [EN], the Italian government seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

A Media and Wiretapping Bill [EN] that was under consideration by the Italian parliament for two years (harshly criticized by the United Nations) [all links in Italian from here] would have introduced a “gag rule” by restricting journalists from publishing wiretapping records during investigations, possibly in the public interest. Thanks to sustained protest by citizens and journalists, these restrictions were formally removed from the text of the bill on July 21. Yet somehow the new version still includes a small clause aimed at directly restricting online free speech,the so-called “blog-killing” provision (par. 29 of art. 1). As the group blog MAVAFFANCULP explains it:

Una norma introdotta riguarda infatti proprio il mondo del web e non si capisce cosa c'entri con le intercettazioni telefoniche. E’ infatti fatto obbligo a qualsiasi blog e quindi a qualsiasi blogger di rettificare nello spazio di 48 ore una notizia o un articolo che possa contenere una informazione non corretta.

In sostanza, se la norma venisse approvata, tutti i blogger dovrebbero stare all'erta per pubblicare una eventuale rettifica che gli sia richiesta pena una multa di 12.500 euro. Non c'è verso di fare neppure una settimana di vacanza tranquilli! E’ evidente che questo porterà molti siti a una scelta drastica. O si chiude o si smette di occuparci di argomenti su cui i potenti, e i loro agguerriti avvocati, sono particolarmente sensibili.

One of the proposed provisions is specifically aimed at the online world and it is not clear what this has to do with wiretaps. It would become mandatory for any blog to rectify within 48 hours any news or articles that might contain incorrect information.

Basically, if the law is approved like it is now, all bloggers are required to promptly fix any requested correction or be fined up to 12,500 Euros. No way that we can even take a short vacation! Obviously this will force many sites to make a drastic choice. Either to close down entirely or stop dealing with issues about which powerful people, and their aggressive lawyers, are particularly sensitive.

Once again, people are voicing their discontent on the Net and on the streets. The web-community Valigia Blu coordinated most of the activity in the last weeks, including a large rally scheduled for Thursday July 29 at 4pm, in Piazza Montecitorio, in downtown Rome, to mark the beginning of the final bill discussion on the Parliament floor.

No Gag Rule protest, Piazza Navona, Rome, 1 July (CC BY-NC-SA)

No Gag Rule protest, Piazza Navona,
Rome, 1 July (CC BY-NC-SA)

In the meantime people are encouraged to sign a letter to MPs in order to “reopen the debate and par. 29 of art.1″: it has been signed by over 11,000 citizens so far, along with other 240,000 signatures gathered during the previous rally held in Rome on July 1st – see picture on the left, from the Valigia Blu photostream on Flickr.

Many self-produced videos are circulating on YouTube, including the following video by nikilnero.

Information is also spread via Twitter under the hashtag #nobavaglio:

No al bavaglio della rete su Twitter

- http://nobavaglio.adds.it has a petition against the Gag Rule, can you please help me get people to sign it?

- local Web-TV risks closure, this strict law is threatening the life of 350+ of them

- confusion reigns here, as in the most backward, forgotten, anonymous state…

The Facebook group No Legge Bavaglio has passed 6,500 members (reaching 11,000 if adding the website supporters) and continues to share updates and news stories:

Note from FB

- You can’t even stop for a minute here, not even the time for a coffee! (arianna)

Note da FB

Therefore it’s quite bizarre what's happening in the Parliament. Or maybe it isn’t, actually. The web has in fact decentralized the news production, with the result that the control on information created by citizens is getting weaker day by day. For some, this is evidently a problem. For all the others it is, indeed a success to be extended and improved.

Mainstream media also oppose the proposed regulation, explaining that anybody sharing content on the web (including radio and TV websites) would be subject to the same “correction requirement”. The website of the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano writes:

Tutte le web tv ed i video blogger italiani, in forza degli emanandi regolamenti, dovranno chiedere all’Agcom un’autorizzazione – o almeno indirizzarle una dichiarazione di inizio attività -, versare 3000 euro per il rimborso delle spese di istruttoria (quali?) e, soprattutto, finiranno assoggettati, tra gli altri al solito obbligo di rettifica, sempre entro 48 ore e sempre sotto la minaccia di una sanzione fino a 12 mila e 500 euro .

L’obiettivo dell’ultimo scellerato progetto di Palazzo sembra evidente: ora che il Cavaliere si accinge a sbarcare in Rete avendone forse, almeno, subodorato le enormi potenzialità, la vuole tutta per lui, per i suoi amici e per i soli suoi nemici che ha, comunque, la garanzia di poter controllare almeno in termini economici.

According to these forthcoming regulations, all Italian Web-TV and video-bloggers must file an application with the Communications Authority – or at least inform them of their official activity – pay 3,000 Euros for a potential investigation reimbursement (what kind?) and, above all, will be subject to the same correction requirement applied to mainstream media, always within 48 hours and at risk of a penalty up to 12,500 euros.

The objective of this now infamous bill by Berlusconi seems clear. Now that he is about to arrive on the Net, having perhaps sensed its enormous potential, he wants to keep it all to himself, his friends and the few enemies he can control in economic terms.

Other online comments address the negative consequences of this “gag rule” on e-commerce activities, as explained by Enrico Giubertoni on Buzzes:

È immorale poiché impedisce de facto ogni forma di critica, è antieconomico poiché impedirà di affermare un principio cardine del Social Media Marketing ovvero il giudizio su un prodotto. Se scriverò che il prodotto A non è bene mentre B è meglio, il produttore di A potrà obbligarmi a rettificare. Come faremo a fare InfoCommerce con l’Ammazza Blog?

It is immoral because it actually prevents any form of criticism, it is anti-economical since it reverses the basic principle of social media marketing, which is the user rating of a product. If I write that product A is not so good, while item B works better, the producer of A could force me to rectify that statement. How are we going to pursue InfoCommerce with this “blog-killing” provision?

Some specific amendments to repeal the “blog-killing” clause have already been announced, but the broader context reveals a new government crisis looming and an on-going intent to impose limitations on the democratic expression of citizens. However, in the Parliament everybody keeps mum. Nobody even seems to know how and why that tiny provision ended up in the wiretap bill.

In a blog post titled  “Il legislatore fantasma” (The Ghost Lawmaker), Massimo Melica says:

Ho provato in ogni stanza, corridoio, stanzino ministeriale…nessuno conosce o ricorda chi ha redatto il testo inserito nel “ddl intercettazioni”, nella parte che riguarda Internet.
Ho sfidato il Sig. Nessuno e nessuno ha accettato la mia sfida.
Quindi ci ritroveremo una norma (comma 29 art.1 ddl intercettazioni) pensata da Nessuno, voluta da Nessuno e scritta da Nessuno ma alla fine approvata dal Parlamento italiano.
Inutile gridare al complotto perchè non c’è, si tratta della burocrazia e della politica incapace di tener traccia dei suoi movimenti.

I've looked in every room, hallway, closet of the Ministry … nobody knows or remembers who wrote that provision about the internet included in the “wiretap bill”.
I challenged Mr. Nobody and nobody has met my challenge.
So we will have a law (par. 29 of art. 1) thought up by Nobody, wanted and drafted by Nobody, but finally approved by the Italian Parliament.
It's pointless arguing against a conspiracy that doesn't exist, perhaps at fault are just bureaucracy and politics unable to keep track of their own developments.

UPDATE (30 July): The Parliament eventually decided to post-pone the bill discussion to September.

The GVO Italian team contributed to the original post and its translation.

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