Italy antiterror law stunts Wi-Fi, critics say

Italy's antiterrorism law is accused of stifling the development of Wi-Fi technology in the country.

Italy's antiterrorism law, renewed by government decree at the beginning of this year, is being accused of stifling the development of Wi-Fi technology in the country.

The law, named after Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, who introduced it in 2005 after the London bombings, obliges the operators of public Wi-Fi services and Internet cafés to keep a record of the identities of all their clients and a log of their Internet traffic for possible consultation by the police.

Critics say the law, intended to help the police combat the use of the Internet by terrorists and criminals, is hurting the development of Wi-Fi by making it difficult and costly for businesses to offer Internet access to their clients. Those intending to do so have to register for a special license with their local police headquarters.

"There are a total of 4806 public access Wi-Fi hotspots in Italy. In France there are five times as many," noted Lorenzo Gennarin, writing in Italy's Web site on public administration issues. "This decree is considered by many as one of the principal reasons why it is so rare here to be able to connect to Internet from a bar, a restaurant, a square or a railway station, while that is normal in other European countries and North America."

Turin Polytechnic's Nexa Center for Internet and Society has called on the government to review the law, which remains in force until Dec. 31, 2009, saying its costs in terms of technological, economic and cultural development outweigh the possible security benefits.

"The decision to introduce the law was taken in the wake of the London terrorist attacks without considering the negative effects," said Nexa director Juan Carlos De Martin. "We would like to see a ministerial commission evaluate the impact of the law. At the moment we have no reliable quantitative data on its effects."

The government has never provided any figures to illustrate the benefits of the law in combating terrorism, De Martin said.

"I know of a bank in the Piedmont region (of northwest Italy) that used to offer Wi-Fi access to its customers while they were waiting for service. The Carabinieri (paramilitary police) arrived and ordered them to dismantle it," De Martin said.

De Martin has also noticed the negative effects of the law in the academic sphere. "If we organize an international conference and want to offer Wi-Fi we have to identify all the users. In some cases I just gave up on the idea. In others some of the guests - they were English - refused to hand over their passports," he said. "One gets a clear sense that the law is acting as a brake, but we need research to quantify it."

A partial solution could be offered by a network of Wi-Fi hotspots provided by local public administrations. The Rome provincial government announced last month that it would invest euros 2 million (US$2.7 million) to create a network of hundreds of hotspots in its administrative area. The provincial government will also take responsibility for registering users and conserving traffic logs.

"Our objective is to install 500 hotspots by the end of 2010 to make the province of Rome one of the most technologically advanced in Italy," provincial governor Nicola Zingaretti said at the time. "Sports centers and private actors will be able to join the provincial network for a small contribution to the hardware costs."

The network currently offers free Internet access via 10 hotspots in Rome and some 30 in neighboring towns.

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