Italy changes tack on internet regulation

U-turn likely as Parliament calls for change

Observers and operators gave a cautious welcome Monday to proposed changes to a draft Italian broadcasting law that has been criticised as a menace to freedom of expression on the internet.

The draft decree was approved last Thursday by lawmakers on committees in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies (upper and lower houses of parliament) but with a request for sweeping changes, particularly in the section governing the internet, which had aroused widespread condemnation.

Deputy Communications Minister Paolo Romani, who was responsible for promoting the decree, said the government would "take rigorous account" of the lawmakers' suggestions.

"Given the differences in the texts approved by the Chamber and the Senate it is clear that we will have to find a way of harmonising them," Romani said.

Lawmakers said there would be no web censorship under the new rules.

"Blogs with amateur videos, online newspapers, search engines and the online versions of magazines are free, and editorial responsibility does not fall on providers who host content generated by others," Alessio Butti, the government lawmaker who drew up the text approved by the Senate committee, told reporters.

"The Chamber and Senate Commissions have proposed significant and positive changes to the draft broadcasting law," Marco Pancini, senior European public policy counsel for Google Italy, said in a prepared statement Monday.

Google's YouTube subsidiary is being sued by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset broadcasting company for alleged copyright violation for allowing users to post videos taken from the company's three national TV networks. Under the original draft of the broadcasting law, which the government says enacts a European Union directive, YouTube risked being treated as a conventional television broadcaster, requiring a special licence from the government and assuming editorial responsibility for all material uploaded to its website.

"It is premature to give a definitive verdict. The text still needs to be finalised and the government still needs to accept the amendments," Pancini's statement said.

Paolo Nuti, president of the Association of Italian internet Providers (AIIP), said he welcomed the change of heart expressed by the parliamentary committees but pointed out that their recommendations were not binding on the government.

"What counts is the text that comes out from the government. There is just one problem: that the recommendations of the European Union directive on electronic commerce are incorporated into Italian law. If I don't have that written down in black and white I can't be satisfied," Nuti said in a telephone interview.

"My impression is that the government realised its text went well beyond the terms of the EU directive. Certainly the parliamentary committees have realised that."

Bloggers were also quick to welcome the government's apparent U-turn.

"This is a new U-turn made necessary by the incompetence of the geriatric ward that, unfortunately for us, on both sides of the political spectrum, occupies Italy's seats of power," said Andrea Guida, writing on the blog geekissimo.

"It seems that asking that a law on a delicate subject like the web be written by someone aged under 60 is asking too much."

The government's initial attempt to tighten control of the internet was also decried by Nicola D'Angelo, a commissioner in the Communications Authority, which is likely to be given a role in policing internet video content under the new law.

"Personally I am opposed to sheriffs of the web," D'Angelo said in an interview published Saturday by the Turin daily La Stampa. "There is a general tendency to try to exercise greater control over internet. That is particularly grave in a country like ours where other forms of communication already show signs of a heavy concentration."

Much of that concentration is in the hands of Silvio Berlusconi, whose family owns newspapers, magazines, book publishers and three national TV networks, and who exercises indirect control of the state broadcaster RAI through parliament.

It will be reassuring for Berlusconi to know that one of the people responsible for rewriting the law in the Chamber of Deputies committee is Deborah Bergamini, a member of his People of Freedom Party and his former personal assistant. Bergamini was briefly suspended from her duties as a director of marketing when she worked previously for RAI over allegations that she maintained telephone contact with colleagues at Mediaset to coordinate coverage of major news events.

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