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

By Giancarlo

An article in Cyberspace and Law – February, 2000


Around the world, sometimes, there is a perception that Italy may be one of the countries where there is government repression of the internet. It’s a misconception; there are, indeed, problems, but there is no censorship and no deliberate government action against any form of free expression – including the net.

The origin of that perception was the infamous “crackdown” in 1994. According to people, such as Bruce Sterling, who have analyzed that situation, it was the biggest police action against the net in any democracy worldwide: even larger than the US “hacker crackdown” in 1990. The two situations, however, were very different. The US crackdown was driven by a concern about hackers – and possible political terrorism. The Italian crackdown was originated by a search for unregistered software. A couple of overzealous and technically ignorant magistrates, hoping to be in the limelight by tackling something new and newsworthy, originated a nationwide “overkill” on a national scale that involved (and scared) a large number of innocent people. Mostly BBSs, as at the time there were very few internet connections in Italy. The problem of computer seizures continues (though it is rarely reported by mainstream media). But it’s the result of poorly conceived copyright legislation and lack of technical and procedure education in courts and police forces; not of a deliberate or concerted government policy. There are more details on this subject in ALCEI’s report at the CFP2000 convention.

This is only one of several problems that need to be faced. There is an obvious need for a “watchdog” to operate consistently over time to protect freedom and privacy; in this long-term perspective the ALCEI association was born in 1994.

NGOs and the internet

There are many “Non Government Organizations” and voluntary associations in Italy, operating on vast variety of causes; several are online. But only one concentrates on internet issues (freedom, culture and privacy) as a priority. The picture is confused, because many associations in one way or another are involved with the internet. With one exception, they can be roughly classified in four groups.

  1. Category associations. They represent the interests of specific business activities. Such as the association of ISPs; the newly formed associations of web developers and of major websites seeking advertising revenues; the traditional associations of advertisers, manufacturers and distributors of branded goods, advertising agencies etc., taking a relatively marginal but increasing interest in the net – etcetera. Quite obviously, they concentrate on the business interests of the companies they represent and pay only occasional “lip service” to basic issues such net culture, freedom and privacy. There are also associations of public service organizations (community networks, mainly “city nets” on a municipal basis) but those, as well, tend to concentrate on their specific role rather than the general issues.

  2. Political organizations. Some are related to specific political parties; others to political movements with no party allegiance. Some of them occasionally declare an interest in broader net issues, but their predominant drive is addressed to their political goals.

  3. Occasional, short-lived campaigns based on specific issues. For instance, there were several drives to eliminate, or drastically reduce, telephone charges. They occasionally made headlines in mainstream media but they were totally unsuccessful. There were also occasional bursts of activity when specific groups were hurt; for instance when one of many thousand seizures hit a server used by a number of non-profit organizations there was a short-lived outrage that was successful in having that server returned and re-established in a short time; but after achieving that specific result the movement failed to address any broader perspective.

  4. Consumer associations. There are several such organizations and some are quite big and powerful. Some of them have been taking an occasional interest in the internet, with no clear strategy or understanding of the subject. A few of their initiatives are on the right side (occasional statements about freedom and privacy) but several are poorly conceived; “good intentions” such as consumer protection often lead to the wrong sort of recommendation, such as encouraging the government and parliament to develop ineffective and stifling bureaucratic regulation. In 1997 an association was set up with the specific intent to protect the interests of internet users. It made a fair amount of noise for about a year but never achieved anything; now it seems to have disappeared altogether.

This is only a brief summary of a confused and ever-changing picture, but one fact is clear: there is only one established, coherent and consistent watchdog for net culture, freedom and privacy in Italy. It’s small, it has very limited resources, but it has achieved some relevant results.

ALCEI – Electronic Frontiers Italy was founded at the end of July, 1994. Its name stands for Associazione per la Libertà nella Comunicazione Elettronica Interattiva . It’s one of the oldest associations of its kind outside the United States. Since its beginning it had contacts with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, though it’s a totally independent association: the EFF has no “subsidiaries” or “branches” and the Italian association is not an affiliate of any other organization. Over the years, it has always worked in an international environment, cooperating with organizations in other countries whenever that was possible and useful. It was one of the founding members of GILC (Global Internet Liberty Campaign) in 1996. It’s been chronically suffering (as many such associations around the world) of two diseases: lack of funds and too small a number of active members. Independence has a price; the association has been totally consistent in not accepting any allegiance with political or business interests and in not bending its objectives. It’s also operating in an environment where most people don’t realize that there are long-term problems and that they need to be faced not with occasional and ineffective bursts of anger and disappointment but with patience and consistency over time. It was quite active in its first two years, then went into a state of semi-hibernation during which some interesting results were achieved but visibility was low; it pulled itself together again at the beginning of 1999 and it’s regaining momentum, in spite of its limited resources.

Problems and threats

Which are the issues and what is being done about them?

  1. Computer seizures didn’t cease after the 1994 crackdown. They continue, on an alarmingly large scale. ALCEI was the only association to issue a clear statement on this subject in 1995; and the only one to consistently raise the issue whenever it has an opportunity. Results, so far, are far below the association’s objectives, but there is progress. Several judges have understood the problem and are conducting their inquiries in a more civilized manner. This is still an uphill job, but little by little we are gaining ground. For instance, training courses are being established, with some help from the association, to explain to magistrates and police forces how they can do their job without unnecessarily harassing suspects as well as a large number of innocent people.

  2. Privacy it threatened in many ways. There is legislation to protect the use of “personal data” but it’s poorly conceived and poorly implemented. Associations, and occasionally political groups, have raised this issue several times, but the impact so far is limited. This is a never-ending task; however small bits are adding up and some results were achieved. For instance, when ALCEI started action with regulatory organizations to look into the contracts offered by large providers and telecoms (especially in “free internet” offers) forcing customers to release personal information and (or) accept spamming, contracts were changed eliminating the offensive clauses.

  3. In Italy (unlike France and other countries) there has never been any prohibition, regulation or limitation of cryptography; but there have been, and there still are, attempts to set some sort of centralized standard, leading to some form of key escrow. So far free-speech and privacy advocates have been successful in avoiding any major restriction on encryption, but we must continue to be watching for attempts to control it (for instance by enforcing registration of legalized electronic signatures). As part of this strategy, ALCEI is supporting PGP on its website

  4. Many people in Italy disagree with the exaggerated enforcement of copyright on software, but there hasn’t been enough organized effort to change the situation. ALCEI is the only association in Italy that has taken a firm stand on this subject. The software house lobby (in alliance with other interests, such as the large music companies) is very powerful and has been outrageously successful in obtaining criminal legislation on so-called “piracy”. It’s very difficult to overcome the bias but we shall need to remain committed on this issue.

  5. In 1999 ALCEI started to develop an effort to bring to public attention the issue of opensource software; which goes far beyond the “Linux vs. Microsoft” debate and is not merely a technical problem: it involves basic issues of compatibility, transparency, compatibility. This, again, is an uphill job, because most authorities and business organizations don’t understand the problem; but step by step we are making some headway. The issue was totally ignored until a few months ago; now it’s beginning to surface. One of the objectives is to expand this campaign on an international scale (especially in the European Union); we are still in the early stages of that development – but we are not giving up.

  6. Bad press (and generally media) coverage of the internet is one of the problems. It ranges from exaggerated horror stories to misguided hype. Things are changing slowly, but there is some improvement. For instance the terror campaign on “pornography” and “paedophilia”, that invaded mainstream media for a long time, has subsided and is being replaced by more considerate reporting. Of course no single association can claim all the credit for this change; but those that have been more consistently committed will need to stay on alert, because the problem is only partly solved.

  7. Censorship, as such, is impossible in Italy. It’s against the law and against the culture. But there are two forms of control on information in mainstream media.

One is the concentration of financial and political control. Over 90 percent of television broadcasting in Italy is owned by two groups: one controlled by the government, the other by a single company owned by the head of the opposition political coalition. Both sides control, or strongly influence, major newspapers and magazines; another (and very large) part of the press is owned by financial groups with large interests outside publishing. This doesn’t lead to censorship, and there is freedom of opinion; but there are very strong influences on most broadcast media.

The second is “ spontaneous” obedience. Many publishers are uncomfortable about publishing anything that may not please major political forces or big financial interests. This is often done mildly, occasionally very bluntly; but the fact remains that controversial opinions don’t get much mileage. One of many possible examples: until a while ago it was very difficult to get anything published, in mainstream media or even in books, that was critical of Microsoft. Now, after the publicity of court cases in the US, some controversy is reported; but pro-Microsoft statements tend to prevail. Is this due to any overt threats by Microsoft? In some cases, yes. But more often publishers spontaneously tend to stay away from anything that might irritate one of the powerful lobbies.

Does this happen also on the internet? To some extent, yes. While the net is totally free and there is no censorship, there are strong (and fairly successful) attempts to lead a large part of the traffic through “portals” or high-volume sites that are controlled by the same forces that govern mainstream media.

In addition to all this, there have been specific attempts to censor the net. The starting point, of course, is concern about “children and pornography”. This is quite peculiar, as there are practically no children online in our country; and, until a short while ago, there were very few teenagers. But the issue was raised as a major problem. Competent experts in child care and other organizations pointed out that parental guidance and educational care are the only useful toola, but the hypocritical “centralized control” attitude gained a lot of attention from the media and the government. There were attempts to establish centralized “filtering” systems, that immediately went beyond the “child protection” issue to invade other fields, including the “certification” of scientific opinion. The reaction was fairly aggressive and so far those attempts have been stifled. But it isn’t over: they will try again. The damage, so far, is mainly cultural: the exaggerated media emphasis on the availability of “dangerous” material on the net has kept many families (especially those with children) away from a home connection. The concern is being gradually overcome as more people become familiar with the internet, but it’s still there.

There is more to be done

Are there going to be other problems? Probably. It’s anyone’s guess where, when and how. We must be constantly on alert. The situation is changing. Now everyone (including the government and big business) claims to be in love with the internet; but we would be better off without some of their “loving care”. Most of these people still don’t understand what it’s really about and are somewhat scared and disturbed. (See Cassandra.) They feel uncomfortable with a communication tool that they can’t control as well as those that they’ve been manipulating for many years. The want to “tame” it as much as they can. Of course total control of the net is impossible; especially in a country where freedom of opinion is well rooted in the culture and the experience of fascism, though remote in time, is a sort of experience than nobody wants repeated. But this doesn’t mean that we can relax. There have been several attempts to limit our freedom and invade our privacy. There will be more.

On one front se have faced, so far, almost total failure: organization on a European scale. There is a European government that is becoming more and more powerful in defining local regulation and legislation. It includes fifteen countries, with 80 percent of Europe’s internet activity; in the next few years it will probably extend to 28 countries and (interestingly) the closest candidates for European Union membership are those with the highest internet density in Eastern Europe. It’s it stated objective to do something about the internet. The EU has repeatedly stated that the net should not be unnecessarily regulated and that freedom must be protected. But in one way or another the European authorities (and the big lobbies that inspire their policies) would like to bring in under control. Since 1995 there have been several attempts to set up a European association to face this problem. While we do, sometimes quite effectively, work with other (European or non-European) organizations on specific issues, nobody so far has been able to set up a permanent and efficient organization as an interface to a growingly powerful European Union. That’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s difficult, as any transnational effort across situations, cultures and attitudes that are still quite different. But we won’t stop trying.

An update on European cooperation.

EDRiDigital Rights Europe – was founded in 2002
and joined by ALCEI in 2005.


See the data section for statistical analyses
of internet development in Europe and worldwide.
There is also a report about internet users in Italy.

The EU’s objectives were defined
in the “Bonn Declaration” (July 1997)
Global Information Networks: Realising the Potential.

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