Italian Agency Presses On With Internet Filtering Powers

Despite protests, the Italian Communications Authority (AgCom) yesterday approved a draft regulation that would give it powers to take down websites and filter the Internet over alleged copyright infringement without prior judicial oversight. The draft will now enter a 60 day period of public consultation.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the AgCom draft (in Italian) prescribes a two-step procedure. First, the owner of a website suspected of copyright infringement will be asked to remove the disputed content within 48 hours. If the owner does not comply, he or she and the copyright claimant will have to appear before an AgCom panel within five days. This panel will have the power to order infringing content removed or, in the case of websites outside Italian jurisdiction, for ISPs to block access to the site.

Under the current regulation, judicial oversight is mandated for removal or blocking of websites found to violate copyright. In contrast, the new process proposed by AgCom does not involve any judge, and no appeal against the panel’s decision will be possible. Reporters Without Borders has heavily criticized the process, saying that it could “give rise to private-sector policing of the Internet” as ISPs might practice preventive censorship to avoid AgCom proceedings.

The group also criticized the process by which AgCom extended its own authority: “AGCOM, which was given regulatory powers under a 1997 law, is about to give itself the power to impose sanctions and to place itself as the centre of all proceedings, acting as both plaintiff and judge at the same time.” Before AgCom took on the initiative, the Italian Parliament had cautioned against a similar scheme, which prompted Reporters Without Borders to state that “authorities are now trying to sidestep the democratic process”. AgCom’s chairman is appointed by the Italian prime minister, an office currently held by Silvio Berlusconi, whose wealth is in large parts based on ownership of a powerful media conglomerate, which might benefit from tougher copyright enforcement.

During a “Net Night” of protests on Tuesday, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and opposition politicians spoke out against AgCom’s draft regulation. Free software advocate Richard Stallman warned that in other countries, “using copyright as an excuse, numerous websites that were saying uncomfortable things have been shut down,” and Literature Nobel laureate Dario Fo exclaimed that “we can't go on this way any longer.”

Indeed, Italy’s record on freedom of expression might point towards the dangers of overblocking. Under the regime of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy has consistently been ranked among the worst countries for press freedom in the EU. Freedom House, in its 2011 Freedom of the Press report, categorized Italy as merely “partly free” and ranked it 75th, ahead of only Bulgaria and Romania within the EU.

Italy’s current Internet filtering regime is extensive, including websites containing images of child abuse, unlicensed (including foreign) gambling websites, and some P2P sites, most notably The Pirate Bay.