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A new dawn for wi-fi: Why using a public network in Italy no longer means showing your passport

Changes to the law in Italy mean the burden of checking wi-fi users' ID has been lifted from pubs, cafes and shops. Could public networks be about to explode in the country?
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor
Image: Shutterstock

If it was their first time in town, they probably didn't notice. But if they were paying a return visit to Bologna, foreign tourists will have had a pleasant surprise this summer: for the first time, they could get onto the city's local government-operated wi-fi network simply by opening up their phone's browser.

Only a couple of months ago, that wouldn't have been possible: under Italian law, foreigners could only use public networks if they'd previously shown up at local government office to prove their identity — with an ID card or passport, say — and asked for a login.

The change to how international tourists can access public networks is just one of the benefits brought about by the Decreto Fare, a government decree published last June. The Decreto Fare clarified the rules around identifying users on public internet services, making it easier for organisations to offer wi-fi connections to the public and potentially boosting networks throughout the country. "At last, we'll have free wi-fi access as in many other nations," said Francesco Sacco, who teaches at Università Bocconi in Milan and studies broadband policies. "Thanks to the new [rules] I think we will see a real proliferation of hotspots."

The effects of the law

The decree — which passed into law at the end of August — removes most of the burdensome bureaucracy that has so far hampered wi-fi development in Italy.

Under article 10 of the law, any organisation whose core business isn't offering internet connectivity – a bar, for example — is no longer required to ID people wanting to use its network, nor store personal data, in compliance with privacy laws.

That means cafes, pubs, and shops are now freed from such obligations and should be more inclined to offer wi-fi to their customers. "The savings could be substantial," according to Nicola De Carne, CEO of wi-fi hardware company WiNext. "Instead of the €200 per year that a shop had to pay to an operator to manage identification, storage and privacy law compliance, now a bar owner could just buy a €30 access point once and do it all by himself."

Muni wi-fi boost

Public sector organisations that have set up muni wi-fi projects are similarly relieved now the decree has become law. Among them is Iperbole Wireless in Bologna, which sees between 15,000 to 20,000 wi-fi sessions per month.

"The first thing we did was to remove the identification procedures," said Giovanni Farneti, project manager at the municipality of Bologna, who oversaw the development of the network.

It's a move that both saved money and increased efficiency: "I estimate that we will cut around 30 percent of total operational costs, particularly in registration and the maintenance of the authentication database, the management of the SMS authentication process, and the helpdesk, which was mostly dedicated to handling registration issues," he said.  

Until now, Iperbole Wireless — which has 64 public wi-fi areas using 100 access points — only accepted registrations where users could show their identity cards, or via mobile phones, as getting a SIM card in Italy also involves proving your identity.

This second option, though, was not available to tourists. "It was quite embarrassing to have to explain they could not complete the authentication through their phones because their carrier was foreign," Farneti said.

Italian wi-fi's sorry history

The passing of the Decreto Fare is the last (and perhaps final) chapter of the troubled history of Italian wi-fi.

In 2005, the so-called Legge Pisanu (the Pisanu law, named after the then interior minister Giuseppe Pisanu) stipulated that anyone willing to offer public internet connections had to ask for government authorisation first, identify would-be users through their IDs, and then store and treat users' personal data in accordance with privacy laws. The legislation was approved in the wake of the 7 July London bombings when public opinion was very sensitive to measures that could be labelled as being 'anti-terrorism'.

The Legge Pisanu "basically prevented a rapid and vast spread of wi-fi in Italy without giving any benefit in return, in terms of fighting terrorism", Sacco said.

When the Legge Pisanu was amended at the end of 2010, some of the controversial provisions around wi-fi were done away with. However, there were concerns that the Legge Pisanu changes conflicted with existing telecoms legislation and doubts remained over where responsibility for identifying users lay in case of police investigations. "As a result," Sacco said, "many providers preferred to keep some form of identification and data retention in place."

Who, me?

While most observers agree that the Decreto Fare is both useful and necessary, there are differences of opinion on how large its impact will be.

"For sure it will allow savings for shops and bars, but I don't know if that will amount to much in terms of the spread of wi-fi," De Carne said. "Some pubs and cafes set up wi-fi connections two years ago when the law was first changed, so I don't know how many will do it now." Italy's below average adoption of wi-fi is more likely the result of the lack of an digital culture in the country than purely the bureaucracy that surrounds it, he said.

And questions still remain over police investigations.

"As much as I like  the new law, I cannot deny that is going make investigations more problematic," said Fulvio Sarzana, a lawyer specialising in telecommunication law.

Rather than terrorism, it's other forms of crime that could present problems, according to Sarzana. "We've never seen a terrorist using a public wi-fi [network] to plan an attack but I personally have had to deal with cases of stalking through public networks. With no identification procedures in place how the police will trace suspects? Or, how a suspect will defend himself? This is why I advise pubs and shops to protect their wi-fi at least with a password."

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