Italy’s Digital Conundrum

The dire issues of the Italian economy, judicial problems and political turmoil are reflected in the nation’s internet policy debate. The difficult development of the Italian web, a good showcase of the conflict of protecting privacy and third parties’ rights vs. safeguarding freedom of speech, and the rise to power of a new type of internet driven political movement provide interesting and thoughtful examples to the world.

Italy is Europe’s fourth largest economy, with a population of nearly 60 millions. The ITU estimates that there are 35.5 million internet users in Italy. That makes for an internet penetration of 57%, ranked 68th in the world, far behind major internet nations as the United Kingdom, Germany, France or even Spain.

The internet developed slowly and the typical broadband connection is 5 MB, well below the average speed of 12 MB in France or 16 MB in Germany. The lack of connectivity is particularly felt by commerce and banking, making data analysis and order processing difficult. E-commerce generates only 5.4% of sales while the European average is 13.9%. According to Istat, the National Institute of Statistics, 48.6% of households have access from home using a broadband connection. There is a significant digital divide between the affluent north and the less developed south. Italians pay among the highest prices for broadband in Europe.

The problems were recognised by the government of former PM Mario Monti. Telecommunications have been deregulated but with the former monopoly Telecom Italia renting out the copper line network to its competitors at a high fee. Sizeable investments in fiber optics are needed. A controversial proposal voiced is to spin-off Telecom Italia’s copper line network into a separate state-controlled entity. Such an entity was said to be more willing to invest in infrastructure. The recent elections disrupted the talks, and resuming them will be a task for PM Enrico Letta.

Defamation is a crime with the possibility of large fines and even prison sentences. The anti-defamation laws are often set up for criticism regarding their intimidating and self-censoring effects on the internet in particular.

In September 2006, a film of an autistic boy, being punched and kicked at school, was posted on the sharing site Google Video – by the bullies themselves. After two months of being widely viewed, the video was removed by Google after a tip-off from the charitable organization Vivi Down, and the bullies were brought to court.

In 2010 Google was brought to trial. Is Google to be considered responsible for the content provided, or merely as a service provider? The lines are blurred with websites such as YouTube, Blogger and Google+. At the first instance Google Italy’s senior managers were absolved from defamation charges but found guilty of breaking privacy laws and given six-month suspended sentences. This February, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision, based on the principle of ISP mere conduit. The decision does not address the role of an ISP in regard of data protection. The prosecutor has decided to appeal to the Court of Cassation, the highest court in the judicial system.

”The web changes everything!” was Beppe Grillo’s motto before the recent elections. The MoVimento 5 Stelle he started won 25% of the votes, mostly from disaffected off-line voters. The grillini advocate populist ideas with a leftish tint, but the main concept is direct democracy through the internet. The manifesto Siamo in guerra (”We are at war”) Grillo wrote with his ideologist Gianroberto Casaleggio is a vivid appeal to e-democracy. More so, societal problems are viewed as ”bugs in the system” to be fixed though the simple application of technology and the collective intelligence of the internet users. The web-centered M5S has shaken the political establishment, but technocratic populism is a difficult proposition in Italy where few are able to participate in society through the web. The movement’s issues with transparency also fosters an informal top-down approach, mimicking former PM Silvio Berlusconi’s control over television.

Waldemar Ingdahl
CEO, think tank Eudoxa