In 2010, Italy did something that antitrust, copyright, and privacy protection lawyers have wanted to do for a long time- it sued Google.  It convicted Google executives to actual prison terms, claiming that they had violated the privacy of a boy with a disability by not taking down a video of him on YouTube fast enough.  The video was put up by a group of children who beat the disabled boy in the video.  Google did remove the video upon being asked to by the police, and complains that it has no obligation to regulate the content put up on its site.[1]  Indeed, such a conviction would have been impossible in the United States. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act allows website operators to edit the content of its sites without being liable to content posted on the website.  Italian prosecutors argue that, because Google receives money from advertising, including from web traffic for illegal videos, it has an obligation to take those videos down.[2]  This is a rather compelling argument, but it has strong implications that have huge consequences for a free web.  If Italy’s case holds, how do corporations find the resources to monitor such isolated areas of its servers?  In any case, multinational websites must deal with the challenges of adapting to different laws in different parts of the world.  Whether the case against Google executives can be claimed as a violation of privacy at all is also subject to question.  Though certainly mean-spirited, it is highly debatable whether simply taking a video in public truly violates privacy.  What caused the Italian government to take the noble act of protecting this disabled boy??  Was it truly just out of a desire to protect privacy that the case was undertaken??  Or were other, potentially even sinister, motives behind the action??

A look at the current situation in Italy may provide the answer.  In November 2011, Silvio Berlusconi stepped down from office after seventeen years as prime minister of Italy.  His “abdication” was the result of problems dealing with the Europe-wide debt crisis.[3]  In his wake, Berlusconi left what appears to be one of the most censored countries in the European Union, to a degree quite uncommon in the liberal west.  A number of these attempts at censorship have played out on the platform of cyberspace.  A look at Berlusconi’s leadership over the last seventeen years reveals that many of these laws are the result of Berlusconi’s varied efforts to sustain his political leadership and protect his interests as a business tycoon.  A rigid protection of privacy and claims in favor of a more restricted Internet both result from troubles in Italy’s past as well as current abuse of political power.

Italy’s Constitution, written in 1948, looks similar to that of the United States at first glance, but actually is much more nuanced than the fourth amendment.  It decrees that “Personal domicile is inviolable”, similar to the American Constitution’s “…right of persons to be secure in their…houses…”  However, the constitution also decrees that “The liberty and secrecy of correspondence and every form of communication are inviolable.”  This is significantly more specific than the United States’ vague protection of “…papers…”  This has serious implications for modern technology, where forms of communication probably include e-mail or phone conversation.  The constitution does have restrictions akin to achieving a warrant in the US constitution, but goes beyond this by saying that laws for the promotion of “…public health and safety, or for economic and fiscal purposes” may be passed.  Thus, Italy casts a wider net in terms of what can be protected but ultimately seems to give fewer securities against abuse by public politicians.[4]  Recent events, however, indicate that wide protections for privacy should not be ignored, as they are often claimed by the government in situations where they do not seem to apply naturally or easily.

Because the Italian Constitution does not define privacy extraordinarily clearly, its actions undertaken claiming the right to privacy are probably informed from other contexts or backgrounds.  Some see the differing views of privacy held by Italy and the United States to be indicative of larger trends in the relative importance of rights between Europe and America.  While America is known to decree speech sacred, Europe holds more to privacy as an essential right, and has enforced legislation against the revelation of private lives by mass media.[5]  Many have recently, however, bloggers have tied Italy’s protections for privacy with Berlusconi’s actions while leading Italy.

Compared with other parts of the European Union, Italy has a great deal more censorship and restrictions on the freedom of speech.  Examples of current laws that show Italy’s censorship include draconian measures on the reporting of the status of warrants and current legal investigations.  Before his tenure in office was finished, Berlusconi introduced several proposals that could have turned Italy into one of the most censored states in the world.  One new proposed law required Internet Service Providers to block access to sites that are decreed by the Minister of the Interior to be illegal.  This would be without a trial and would include such common sites as Facebook.  Passage of this act would have made Italy a strikingly similar place to China.[6]  Under the law, websites would have had to correct content at the request of any person within 48 hours.  No judge would have been available to approve a correction.  The proposed law was so egregious that Wikipedia took down its Italian webpage as a form of protest.[7]  A government decree at the end of 2010 required those who put up videos online to seek government licensing just like a television station.  Any proponent of an open net would have recognized the severe risks to Internet freedom posed by these restrictions, since most people will not take the time or effort to obtain authorization.[8]  The fortunate news for Italy is that these new laws could not apply to sites operating outside of the country, including most prominently YouTube.[9]  Still, it is no wonder that Italy sees smaller web traffic than similarly developed countries.

Berlusconi realistically justified the rise of censorship laws as arising out of his need for security.  The Facebook fan page of someone who directly attacked the prime minister swelled in popularity after the incident.  Many popular groups arose on the web appeared in support of the criminal.  Italy’s widely restrictive laws could be claimed to be stopping mafia and other terrorist groups that seek to use the Internet to mobilize the masses for illegitimate purposes.[10]  The issue here is that the government’s restrictions on Internet speech seem to have little relation tot he incident itself.  How does making web sites accountable for illegal language deal with the hatred of the prime minister which led to the popularity of anti-Berlusconi Facebook pages in the first place?  Nevertheless, Facebook remains committed to preventing groups that actively promote violence against an individual, including pages such as “Let’s Kill Berlusconi.”  Similar measures are taken in America for groups that advocate Obama’s death, for instance.  Many of Italy’s goals, essentially, are for the rapid takedown of groups that most consider simply offensive, such as terrorism or pedophilia.[11]  At what point is censoring “offensive” speech too far, however?

Many would say this would be at the point where the censorship serves only as a goal of protecting political or economic power.  Berlusconi controlled (and still has an influence over) the public and leading private media outlets in the country.[12]  One of the reasons for the concern about recent decisions on the Internet that restrict content or make third parties responsible is because they may be simply have been a tool to help Berlusconi dominate the press and public opinion.[13]  He hoped to restrict communication across the Internet for the purpose of drawing people towards government controlled television networks, thus promoting his own political legitimacy.  By seeking to control public opinion, Berlusconi continued already well-founded comparisons of himself to Benito Mussolini, who similarly used propaganda to control public opinion in the Fascist state.

Berlusconi’s interests were also economic.  Berlusconi had interests in real estate and other industries that may have been better promoted in government controlled channels.  Furthermore, he derived profits from the media networks he owned himself.  Another possible economic interest results from fees that can be made off of videos taken from Italian television programs that violate copyright on YouTube.[14]  The government under Berlusconi did not try to use the Internet itself as a way to promote its own views or to give propaganda, probably because it is so difficult to control.

Therefore, we can see Italy’s fight against Google in a new light.  It is possible that the case was introduced not out of a desire to protect privacy.  In fact, the only privacy that it probably sought was the privacy of the government from hearing government criticism as posted on YouTube.  Italy’s fight against Google probably mostly results from a direct competition with a cyber corporation for power.  Italy’s current situation (a hangover from the days of Berlusconi) has many implications for our own.  On the one hand, increased dedication to privacy and countering terrorism seem like noble uses of the Internet.  As can be seen, however, restriction by the government can go too far too fast.  It is hard to argue that forcing people to seek government authentication before putting up videos is a benefit to our society, and countries should find a fine line between protecting legitimate claims and making sure politicians don’t abuse a vibrant forum of free speech.

[11] ibid.