Dec 14, 2010

Wikileaks: Italian Law Would Allow Government to Block or Censor any Internet Content

A Wikileaked cable out of Embassy Rome from February 2010 (cache) documents concerns among US diplomats that a bill before the Italian parliament would "give the Italian government enough leeway to block or censor any Internet content" and set a potentially dangerous international precedent that could be copied by other nations.  The proposed law, known as the Romani Bill, is widely viewed as an attack on the open internet and internet freedom.  The Herald Tribune reported this past January:
The 34-page decree mandates vetting any content harmful to minors, specifically pornography or excessive violence, and would require telecom providers to shut down any Internet site not in compliance, or face fines ranging from $210 to $210,960. . . .

The draft was written in mid-December, around the time the media empire founded by Berlusconi announced it was seeking at least $779 million in damages against YouTube and Google for allegedly misusing video it produced. The move is in response to a 2007 European Union directive to set up media rules, but only Italy has taken the directive to mean putting Internet companies in the hotseat.
The decree also inherently challenges the YouTube business model, shared by other hosting platforms, of allowing users to upload video without being controlled . . . 
Commenting on the proposed law, the leaked cable cites official denials on the part of the Berlusconi government, that the bill is intended to stifle free speech, and notes that there had been relatively little public outrage over the issue.  (One wonders what kind of coverage one could find on the issue in Berlusconi's massive and influential media empire.)  The cable goes on to note that the Italian government began to move swiftly toward censoring the internet after video of the prime minister being attacked in public resulted in the popularization of a Facebook fan page devoted to the attacker. 

Ironically, the cable states that the US government has for years pressured Italy to set up a regulatory regime for online content and "take action to protect copyrighted material on the Internet, in particular encouraging the establishment of clear notice-and-takedown procedures and cooperation among rights holders and ISPs to prevent illegal filesharing."  However, it finds the Italian government's defense of the law on those grounds suspect, given the Italian government's previous lack of interest in the matter.

Finally, the cable states that, if passed, the law would set a dangerous precedent that could be copied or cited by other nations to justify their own crackdowns on the freedom of speech.

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