Data protection in Italy
Loudly more of the same

Giancarlo Livraghi

Published in edri-gram on January 28, 2008

(In the same issue there are articles on the situation in other European countries)

I am sorry to say that I am skeptical about “days” dedicated to this or that cause or problem. They are often ignored, sometimes briefly celebrated, rarely leave any relevant trace over time. There are so many that we shall soon have one a week – and it won’t be more relevant than brunch on Sunday.

On the loud and confusing current debate in Italy about data protection, the situation could be summarized in four words. More of the same.

There has been a lot of wiretapping (sometimes real, sometimes imaginary or overstated) for over sixty years (actually also long before that, but it’s reasonable to start from when Italy returned to democracy and freedom after World War Two). And of course it extended to electronic networks since the very beginning.

It’s a notorious, though rarely published, fact that there were legitimate police forces, as well as “undercover” spies by secret services or private interests, including scamsters and organized crime, lurking since the days when networking was based on BBSs or newsgroups and the extended use of the internet was not yet developed.

Privacy and data protection were practically ignored until a poorly conceived law was instated in 1996, creating a bureaucratic body called “Ufficio del Garante” that was supposed to be an “ombudsman” but, de facto, has rarely done anything in that role, being much more concerned with complicated and inefficient formalistic ruling and with occasional attention to the specific cases of politicians or “famous people” being embarrassed in their “privacy” or spied in legal or illegal ways.

The currently loud debate is more confusing than it is meaningful. While everybody is saying that it’s about the rights of citizens, the truth is that it relates to the conflicting interests of politicians and mass media.

There have been, over the years, many episodes (and discussions) about intercepting private telephone conversations, or online communication – sometimes legally, sometimes not – including some invasive spying done secretly by individuals or departments in telecoms – in addition to ISPs being forced by authorities or police to spy on their customers. Another source of aggressive debate is the “leaking” to the press of recorded conversations, including private dialogues unrelated to any criminal investigation.

At this stage, it’s hard to understand what is actually happening and what may happen in the next few days or weeks – or maybe never. Italy’s Prime Minister has publicly announced that he will make “shattering revelations”, but we don’t know if and when he, or some government spokesman, will actually do so – and what the “scandal” might imply. There is threatening talk about new legislation, but so far no indication of what, when and how.

Also the issue of data retention is discussed in contradictory and confusing statements, some proclaiming the need to extend it in size and time and some saying the opposite (more for the cost and organisation problems of generating and maintaining vast databases than for the protection of citizens’ privacy).

Is this just more inconclusive noise, as has happened many times, or will it lead to some action on a national scale or (as has been suggested) as recommendations to the European Union and-or on a wider international scale, maybe including the G8 meeting to be hosted in Italy in July 2009?

Quite simply, we don’t know. And, as far as we can tell, nobody (so far) has a clear idea of what those rulings or suggestions might imply. There may be some news in the next few days, or it could take much longer, or it could vanish (if only for a while) from the political and media scene as other priorities prevail. Right now, we can only wait and see.


Seizures and other abuses
from bad to worse (22.10.2008)

ALCEI – Data Retention

Data retention – not only a privacy issue
Civil rights and ambiguity of crime “prevention” (24.01.2004)

Internet freedom, privacy and culture in Italy
(and the activity of NGOs) (02.2000)

Other articles on
freedom and censorship

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