Battle for the future of Italy's internet: Protests build against site-blocking law

A copyright regulation set to come into effect next year is drawing the ire of a diverse coalition of activists, lawyers and ISPs.
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor

Italy's internet is in turmoil, with the country's telecoms regulator at the centre of the brouhaha.

A diverse coalition of activists, lawyers and ISPs is protesting against a draft regulation on digital copyright, which the Italian comms watchdog, AgCom, will finalise and approve in the next few weeks.

The regulation, they say, puts internet users' freedom of expression in jeopardy and imposes an excessive economic burden on ISPs. The coalition has gone as far as to send an open letter to Laura Boldrini, the president of the lower house of parliament — where a few bills on copyright are currently waiting to be discussed — urging the assembly to take the matter into its own hands and suspend the regulation.

In parallel, two Italian MEPs have filed a parliamentary question to the European Commission on the subject, asking the EC to take a stance on the regulation.

The episode is the last in a series of events over the past few years where groups of Italian experts and users have mobilised (successfully, for the most part) against online regulation proposed by parliament or the government.

Freedom at risk?

The draft — which was published by AgCom in July and which was opened to consultation until the end of September — aims to promote the "legal distribution of digital content" as well as consumer "education" on copyright infringement. But that's not what is stirring the debate.

The problem, according to some, is the powers the regulation would give AgCom to pursue this goal: blocking websites, domain names or IP addresses following a request from a copyright holder. Such orders — according to those opposing the regulation — should rather be issued by a court.

"For instance, for the first time an administrative body could block foreign sites for mere copyright violations, which, as such, can encompass any kind of form of expression," said lawyer Marco Scialdone, who signed the letter to the parliament. "So far that has been possible only for very specific types of content like gambling and paedophile-pornography sites. For anything else you had to go through the courts."

The coalition of activists also thinks the draft would impose a new economic burden on ISPs which claim they would not have enough time to comply with removal or blocking orders.

"The wording of the draft is ambiguous. When it speaks of 'selective removal' it might be interpreted as suggesting the adoption of Deep Packet Inspection which — besides being unconstitutional — would be devastating for small ISPs' business," said Dino Bortolotto, president of Assoprovider, an association of ISPs.

"Also, two days (and it's not even specifying 'working days') is simply just not enough for ISPs to comply, particularly considering the fine can amount to up to €150,000" — if the ISP can't implement the block within the two-day deadline.

Similar concerns have been expressed by Article 19, an international  freedom of expression advocacy, which thinks the draft "falls short of international standards on freedom of expression in key respects".

It goes further: the activists also question the ability of AgCom to fulfill such a delicate role. The regulator's resources, they claim, are not sufficient to deal with the deluge of requests expected to come.

"We fear we are going towards some form of automatic blocking: similar to what happens for gambling and child abuse images, there will be periodically updated lists of sites that Italian citizens can't access, maybe because only one or two pieces of content out of thousands on a site are claimed to be illegal," Scialdone said.

AgCom declined to comment to ZDNet.

Some thoughts in defence of the draft, though, came from Enzo Mazza, chairm of music industry lobby group FIMI. "The people that today are protesting against the draft didn't say a word when similar procedures were installed for gambling sites."

As for the management of takedown requests, he doesn't see any major problem. "We are talking about a dozen international platforms, such as The Pirate Bay, IsoHunt, Torrent Reactor, which are already pretty well known," Mazza said.

The regulation should come into effect from February next year.

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