A trial is due to open in Rome Wednesday pitting a major antipiracy organisation against Telecom Italia and the national Privacy Authority over who is responsible for policing the internet.
FAPAV, the Audiovisual Antipiracy Federation, backed by the Italian Authors and Publishers' Society (SIAE), is suing Telecom Italia for damages for failing to prevent its customers from illegally downloading copyright material from peer-to-peer websites.
In what promises to be a major clash over the regulation of the internet, Telecom Italia, which denies responsibility for the online activities of its customers, is being supported in the case by the telecom operators' association Asstel, by the Italian Association of Internet Providers (AIIP), and by the Privacy Authority.
FAPAV claims that hundreds of thousands of Telecom Italia customers have violated copyright by downloading films and music from around a dozen commercially run pirate websites. The federation is demanding that Telecom Italia identify its customers who are responsible for the copyright violations, report them to the justice authorities, block their access to the offending websites and inform them that they have been breaking the law.
"This is not a matter of peer-to-peer (and therefore of an exchange between individuals) but of sites organised on a commercial basis that profit from an activity that is clearly illegal in all of Europe and the United States," FAPAV said in a statement released last month. "In the face of an activity that evidently constitutes a crime, rules governing personal data must take second place."
Telecom Italia argues that acceding to the demands would constitute a breach of Italy's 2003 telecommunications law and violate the neutrality and independence required of telecom carriers. It has been encouraged in this stand by the support of the Privacy Authority, which has decided to participate in the trial following news reports that FAPAV may have used illegal spyware to identify the Telecom Italia copyright violators.
The suspicion was fuelled by the admission last April by FAPAV President Filippo Roviglioni that the organisation had used a software program to identify the copyright violators. "We went cheerfully to the magistrate, with names and surnames. The magistrate asked us how we had obtained them and given that the pirates obviously hadn't consented to it, he told us that we risked being placed under investigation for violating privacy," Roviglioni said in an interview published by punto-informatico.it.
The online publication said FAPAV's actions risked sacrificing the right to privacy of millions of internet users and setting a precedent of private investigators usurping the role of the police and judiciary.
The case resembles a similar dispute from 2007 when a German record company, Peppermint, and a Polish video producer, Techland, sued Telecom Italia in a bid to identify alleged copyright violators using the Italian carrier's network. The plaintiffs had reportedly identified the violators by using software provided by the Swiss company Logistep. In that case the Rome court found in favour of Telecom Italia.
In the current case FAPAV denies violating privacy rules, insisting it has managed to identify only the first three groups of numbers making up the IP addresses of the alleged violators.
The battle between the antipiracy campaigners and the supporters of net neutrality will be adjudicated by Judge Antonella Izzo, who is not expected to reach a verdict for at least several weeks.
Last month FAPAV expressed the hope that the parties could reach a negotiated solution out of court, but observers believe that outcome is unlikely. "The two sides are so far apart that I don't believe there is any room for a negotiated agreement," said one informed source, who asked not to be identified by name.