Italy: Internet press freedom under threat

Giulia Bongiorno, president of the parliamentary judiciary committee, decided on 21 July that amendments to paragraph 29 of article 1 of the so-called Wiretapping Bill were "unacceptable". The amendments targeted the article's extension of the print press rectification obligation to the web. By eliminating even the possibility that this complex topic will be debated in parliament, the deicison threatens to make freedom of information on the web its first victim.
Arianna Ciccone
27 July 2010

One of the provisions of the Media and Wiretapping Bill currently being discussed by the Italian Parliament is that all “those responsible for information websites” will be required to issue corrections within 48 hours to any complaint regarding website content, whether blogs, opinion, comment and/or information in general. Corrections would need to be in the same form in which the contested content was originally put online, whether text, podcast or video. Failure to do so will risk a fine of up to 12,500 euros.

This law seeks to apply to online opinion/information/news – whether professional or amateur, commercial or individual – the same rules as those applied to the traditional media as established in the law of 1948 (!), namely Article 8 relating to the so-called “obbligo di rettifica” or requirement to issue corrections. Media law will thus henceforth make no distinction between mainstream media and the multifarious world of information and/or opinion on the web.

Is it right for bloggers, content-sharing websites or any other online information-providers to have to “publish” a correction within 48 hours if any of their content, whether direct or indirect, is considered false or slanderous? The web is not the press. Rules should be different for mainstream media and online information. To manage any request for correction is time-consuming and complex - just to evaluate whether the complaint is justified might require professional expertise which the vast majority of online information websites don’t have. At stake is the very existence of the website - a heavy fine would for many constitute closure.

What’s the likely result of this proposed law? Many bloggers and amateur participants in web debate and information-gathering will simply decide it’s not worth the risk and the hassle. They’ll retreat to the position they may well have started from, namely passive consumers of news. Or continue in an active online role but only on issues of low media visibility so as to avoid drawing attention to themselves. All of this is inimical to a healthy democracy of well-informed and actively involved citizens.

Consider the practicalities of request for correction to a social networking website: first see the request (a day at the beach or illness might become very expensive indeed), then locate the author (ditto), then check the content (how can second-hand information be quickly and effectively verified?), then decide whether the request for correction is justified (natural tendency to issue corrections each time just to be on the safe side?), then (having carefully weighed all the relevant issues) perhaps issue the correction. All within 48 hours. Power cut? Tough luck! Server down? Your problem! A post on “my” website by someone I don’t know on an issue I’m not interested in while I’m off scuba-diving and I’m on the hook for 12,500 euros? This isn’t law-making worthy of a modern democracy, it’s robbery with intimidation.

The web will be emasculated. The unique vitality and yes, freedom, of cyberspace will be reduced. Diversity of opinion will suffer as uncertainty, prudence and fear take the place of liberty of expression. Mainsteam media frequently dances to other tunes. At risk is the future of independent news-gathering and opinion-sharing in Italy.

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