I am just back from Italy, my home country. I’ve had excellent food—the much-loved Roman speciality tonnarelli cacio e pepe and the seasonable, again very Roman vegetable puntarelle. However, the state of Internet freedom (sprinkled with corruption and indifference) was quite hard to digest.
To sum it up: While many Western countries are proposing or adopting laws that threaten the open Internet (think ACTA or “three strikes”), Italy is the only country in the Western world where the government is very consciously trying to extend its control from the offline world into the online space by classifying websites as press or television. Italy is spearheading this type of attack on the Internet from the heart of the EU and the Council of Europe. And it will be hard to quote the “European standard” in the future when advocating for an open Internet elsewhere in the world. While the recent conviction of three Google executives has made headlines outside Italy, the following equally if not more alarming proposed laws have not received the international attention they deserve:
· Disegno di Legge (DDL) Alfano: among other things, with its article 1/28 it proposes to extend the right of reply as defined in article 8 of the Italian Press Law from 1948 to all websites.
· DDL Peccorella-Costa: with its article 1, it proposes to classify “websites that disseminate news to the public” as press and hence subject them to the Italian Press Law of 1948 (read a detailed analysis of the proposed law and its implications).
· Decreto Romani: it is implementing the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive and leaves it unclear whether audiovisual websites such as audiovisual blogs are classified as ‘audiovisual media services’ and hence would fall under regulation of the audiovisual sector; in addition, it creates problems of ISP/intermediary liability (read a detailed analysis).
All of this makes sense from the government’s point of view: It (or rather its leader) currently controls the three public and three private television stations which reach a total of 84 percent of viewers. (The terrestrial competitor La7 reaches 3 percent.) And importantly, 80 percent of Italians get their news from television. The Internet is hence at this point little more than a nuisance—only 50 percent of Italians are connected to the Internet. But it has the potential to become much more than that. For example, when the public broadcaster was recently asked to remove three political talk shows in the lead up to the regional elections, websites including corriere.it decided to host the shows.
Will the government get its way? Probably. The majority government seems more or less united at this point and there is little the opposition can do to stop these three legislative proposals. Why is the public not crying foul or otherwise exerting pressure? On October 3 last year, the National Association of the Press organised one of biggest demonstrations yet in support of free expression and an open Internet. Resistance against these different government policies is also being organised by il Popolo Viola, a loose network that is organising via Facebook. And several outspoken and critical individuals such as for example Guido Scorza are doing their bit. But civil society groups working on free expression in an ongoing and professional way are barely existent in Italy. And most importantly—and as strange as it might sound—most Italians actually “feel free.”
This trip reminded me of a major challenge we are increasingly facing when campaigning for human rights. While the idea of an open society is based on human rights and the rule of law, people often simply don’t care about those rights. What they care about is jobs and economic well-being. How does this challenge impact and shape the way human rights organizations work?
Update: On March 25, the journalists whose political talk shows have recently been banned from public television organised Raiperunanotte, a major event denouncing the miserable state of media freedom in Italy. This event, hosted by the famous yet controversial journalist Michele Santoro at the Paladozza di Bologna, is said to have had more online viewers than any other web event in Italy to date. And on the same evening, an uncounted number of Italians descended into more than 200 piazze around the country. Clearly, the Internet is a beacon of freedom in a country where television is controlled by the government—and the fight to keep it open and free is so enormously important. The question going forward is: Will the “dissidents” that gathered on the 25th around Italy be heard by the rest of the Italians?