It was a race against time, but the ad hoc committee appointed in July last year by the president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, to write a 'bill of rights for the internet, kept its promise to deliver the document within twelve months.
Yesterday the final version - meant to serve as the foundation for defining web users' rights and obligations - was officially made public, under the name of the 'Declaration of Internet Rights'.
A first draft was revealed last October by the committee - formed of politicians from all parliamentary parties and independent experts in the field - and was then was subject to a four-month public consultation.
Participation seems to have been relatively low: the draft was accessed 14,000 times and received 590 comments, according to data provided by Boldrini; not much, for such an important topic, but this is perhaps unsurprising in a country where almost one-third of the population has never used the internet.
What was missing in quantity was, however, made up in quality: interviews with a number of relevant stakeholders were scheduled - from telcos like H3G, Wind, and Telecom Italia to Confindustria Digitale (the branch of the Italian entrepreneurs' association that deals with all things digital), and people belonging to sectors deeply involved in the country's digital transformation, such as lawyers and cybersecurity experts.
The result of all these processes was that the Declaration was streamlined, and its rough edges were smoothed out - particularly with regards to one of the most controversial points, the article on net neutrality.
In its original form, the draft bill contained a passage on the need to preserve net neutrality to "maintain the creative capability of the internet, also with regard to producing innovation".
In the final version, that sentence was removed, leaving the phrase: "The right to neutral access to the internet in its entirety is a necessary condition for the effectiveness of an individual's fundamental rights".
The bill's wording is not a matter of chance; while not mentioning Facebook's Internet.org directly, for instance, it's clear that the world "entirety" could refer to such platforms. Internet.org claims to offer internet access for users in developing countries, but instead only provides access to sites of its choosing. Such a service, according to the principles of the bill, is not acceptable.
Suggestions from the public consultation were taken into account, and some were included in the final version. "For instance, in the first version, we wrote of 'personal identity', but then someone pointed out that people, on the internet, should be free to maintain several identities, so we used the plural noun," co-director of the Nexa Center for Internet & Society at the Politecnico of Turin, Juan Carlos De Martin, a member of the bill of rights committee, told ZDNet.
Another significant change was the introduction in the second article of the Declaration of a paragraph which reads: "Access to the internet is a fundamental right of all persons and a condition for their individual and social development".
There are countries, like Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ecuador, Spain, and France in which internet access is considered (in one form or another) a fundamental right of all citizens; Italy is not among them, so that, if the Declaration becomes law or - more likely - is used by the MPs as a useful framework on which to base proposals aimed at updating legislation, it would have already had some positive impact on the current landscape.
So far, in fact, the document is just what it promises to be: a "declaration" of intent, with no real normative value. It will be up to Boldrini - and the Parliament - to transform it in something more: a commitment by the government to adopt its principles as a guide when involved in Internet-related negotiations, on a national or international level.
Italy's ambitions, however, go way beyond that: the goal is to promote the Declaration globally as a model for defining web users' rights and obligations, with the help of the World Wide Web Foundation.
Stefano Rodotà, an internationally-recognized expert in the field who led the Italian committee, and Tim Berners-Lee, the 'father of the web' and founder of the WWW Foundation, will discuss the document with other delegates of the Internet Governance Forum to be held in Joa Pessoa, Brazil in November.
Before then, the document may be improved and tweaked further after some points came in for criticism from national and international supporters. Some commentators believe that the Declaration does not address properly the issue on freedom of speech on the internet, confusing the right to connectivity with being able to express one's ideas.
Others criticized the lack of any reference to cryptography to protect anonymity, in the document. "What they failed to notice," De Martin says, "is that the Declaration clearly says that 'every person may access the internet and communicate electronically using instruments, including technical systems' to protect their anonymity. We preferred a more generic phrase because while now cryptography is important, in the future, other solutions may appear."
The World Wide Web Foundation itself does not seem fully convinced and while praising and supporting the work of the Italian committee, believes that "the Bill falls short in protecting anonymity and encryption, while clauses around data retention are unclear".
However, the document has received very positive reviews overall; the final impact on the rights of Italian internet users, and its influence on the internet governance debate currently taking place internationally, will depend on factors beyond the reach of those who drafted it: namely, Italian diplomacy's ability to exert an influence on a global stage, and its Parliament's willingness not to waste the good job done so far.
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