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Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Friday, 14 August 2009 16:37 UK

Italian bloggers' silent protest

By David Reid
BBC Click

Italian bloggers went on strike in July to protest against government measures that they claim could kill the internet. They say the Alfano decree restricts the rights of bloggers to express their opinions without fear of comeback.

Italian internet cafe user
Italians use the internet less than many other Western Europeans

Demonstrators online and on the streets say the Italian government is trying to muzzle the internet.

If the Alfano decree becomes law, it would put websites on a par with newspapers, giving a right to reply to anyone who believes their reputation has been damaged by something published on the internet.

But critics say the law is so archaic it barely works in print. Apply it online and it could kill free speech on the internet.

Hefty fines

Alessandro Gilioli, a journalist and organiser of the blogging strike, says the measures could deter people from going online.

"They are discouraging the use of the internet, forcing all the bloggers to rectify any opinion that anybody thinks is hurting his honour or reputation and they are creating big fines, more than €10,000 (£8,500), if you don't publish your rectification in two days.

"So that means that if a teenager stays two days away from the computer and he doesn't rectify his opinion, he is going to pay €10,000.

"That's stupid and that's incredible and overall that's discouraging people to use the internet."

The planned rules are not just about correcting factual errors. They give anyone who feels their reputation has been damaged by an opinion the right to have their side heard within 48 hours.

The essence of blogging is that anyone with an opinion on almost anything can share it with everyone, which is why there are so many trenchant views out there.

So much so that most bloggers would dismiss as laughable an obligation to give a right to reply to anyone or any entity they criticise.

Unclear

If they write something false about me on a website, I have the right to see my opinion published
Francesco Pizzetti, Italy's Data Protection Authority

It is not clear if the law Italy's senate will be voting on in the autumn will extend to bloggers, or, for that matter, who to ask about it.

The Italian Ministry of Justice did not take up Click's request for an interview.

However Francesco Pizzetti, the president of Italy's Data Protection Authority says he does not believe the law will apply to bloggers.

"I believe these norms are acceptable. They just state that if they write something false about me on a website, I have the right to see my opinion published and my request for a correction published," he said.

"I don't believe they create a new obligation, so I don't believe they concern bloggers. It concerns the websites of newspapers and of the press generally."

Supporters of the law say it is unfair that bloggers can dole out a verbal bludgeoning online without regulation or any journalistic obligation to be fair and balanced.

Critics say a summary fine in the thousands will not guarantee balance but silence.

Behind the times

These bloggers and the internet are the only escape valve for this information that is free from the control of the big industrial groups who own the newspapers
Marco Lillo, investigative journalist

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi owns or heavily influences swathes of the country's media.

Investigative journalist Marco Lillo sees Italy's bloggers as vital for freedom of speech: "The fact is these bloggers and the internet are the only escape valve for this information that is free from the control of the big industrial groups who own the newspapers.

"They have commercial interests and often have to obtain authorisation and concessions from the government. This means the web is the only place where the editor or journalist is independent. The blogger is his own man."

Italy appears to have a problem with the internet. More than half the population has no web access and one source puts average usage at just two hours a week.

As the Alfano decree suggests, official attitudes to the web are fundamentally out of step with other Western countries. You need an ID, for example, to log-on at a wi-fi hotspot, and there has even been talk of banning anonymity online and obliging bloggers to register with the government.

The Italian government's uneasy attitude to the internet will likely have a chilling effect on the web's development in the country, stifling a sector that has elsewhere proven so dynamic economically and politically.



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