October 1998

Copyright 1998 EDUCAUSE. From Educom Review, Volume 33, Number 5, p. 30-32. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the EDUCAUSE copyright and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of EDUCAUSE. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact Jim Roche at EDUCAUSE, 4840 Pearl East Circle, Suite 302E, Boulder, CO 80301 USA; 303-939-0308; e-mail: [email protected]

Law and Disorder in Cyber-Italy

by Bernardo Parrella

At 10:30 in the morning on Saturday, June 27, 1998, the Isole nella Rete (INR) server, Italian outlet for the European Counter Network (, was shut down and seized by the Postal Police in Bologna for "defamatory" material posted on its system.

The news struck Italian media even before INR's several hundred users could realize what had happened: nobody informed them that their incoming mail was irreparably lost or that the 15,000 pages published on its Web site were no longer available. The reason behind such a sudden and serious event? A state prosecutor in the northern city of Vicenza had the brilliant idea of ordering the seizure to "prevent the prolonged crime of defamation" against a travel agency in Milan, Turban Italia Srl. According to the warrant issued by Dott. Paolo Pecori, the operation came after the publication on the Web site of a message signed by "Collettivo Spartakus," a Vicenza-based collective group, entitled "Solidarity with Kurdistan people-Boycott tourism in Turkey."

Originally posted on the mailing list ([email protected]), which is devoted to issues related to the so-called social centers and their political activities, the message was then published on the Web through a typical automatic procedure. It included the transcription of a printed flyer publicly distributed in the streets and even broadcast on local radio programs, as part of a solidarity campaign with Kurds being persecuted by the Turkish government and launched by several political and cultural associations in Italy. Among other things, the document called for a boycott of tourism in Turkey and particularly of Turban Italia services, claiming that the travel agency had strong financial ties to former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, "organizer of death squad operations against Kurdistan people and other political opponents."

"Question: what's the duty of a judge faced with a defamatory message found on an Internet site?" This is the opening sentence of a story published the following day in the leading daily, la Repubblica. Answer: "First option (based on rationality and common sense, judicially correct): to seek the immediate removal of the message. Second option (heavy, authoritarian, judicially questionable): to give order to seize the server. That is: to control one voice, we shut everybody up." The same opinion could be found in other newspapers and national media, not to mention among the online community at large, with supportive messages coming from other countries such as Spain, France, the Netherlands, the U.S. In other words, there is worldwide consensus in the telecommunications as well as in the judicial arenas that an Internet service provider (ISP) may not be held liable for material posted on its system. This position was recently confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a 1995 defamation case involving America Online. But, of course, for those living at the far end of this evolving frontier known as cyberspace (as the Italians doubtless are), the scene is still much more confused and chaotic than anywhere else.

The unfortunate incident involving the INR server seizure looks even worse, and possibly "politically" motivated, because it strikes a small nonprofit, progressive organization used by a couple of hundred people and associations working on a political and social level, as well as progressive and grassroots affiliations based in Italy and abroad. Founded in Milan in March 1996, was offering Web space and Internet services to 120 groups (ranging from far leftist to human rights activists, from social centers to cultural associations) and about 100 individual users. Some of them include: Lila (Italian League Against AIDS), Italy-Cuba Association, Telefono Viola (psychiatric abuse hot-line), ADL (workers union), Spain's CNT, several web-zines (.Zip, Necron, London's Freedom Press), local bands (99 Posse, Sunscape, Electra) and radio stations (Radio Black Out, Radio Sherwood, Radio Onda d'Urto). Also very active were several mailing lists hosted on the same server, including one in support and solidarity with Mexican rebels in the Chiapas region and "cyber-rights," the only Italian list open to public discussion about privacy, encryption and free speech online. The ([email protected]) list and its subscribers were essential to the success of HackIt98, the first public meeting ever organized by and devoted to the Italian hacker community, held in Florence in June (a couple of weeks previous to the INR seizure) and attended by approximately 1,000 people.

Fortunately, less than 72 hours after the law enforcement measure, the server was returned to INR representatives in Milan (a Vicenza judge did not validate the prosecutor's order) and now it's up and running again stronger than ever--but its members and the general public are still awaiting a reasonable explanation from justice officials for their actions. In the meantime, many supporting initiatives blossomed and are still proliferating: mirror sites set up worldwide, lawyers overloaded with yet more work, politician involvement in issues, maybe even the birth of an independent agency devoted to information distribution and legal assistance in protection of cyber-rights.

It is worth noting that a similar event happened in Italy four years ago. In May 1994, "Operation Hardware 1" was launched to stop illegal software duplication and distribution. In fact, the "Fidobust," as the operation was quickly dubbed, became the first nationwide crackdown against Italian BBSs, mostly being part of the FidoNet network, even larger than the infamous U.S. "Operation Sundevil" of 1990. Acting after 173 warrants issued by the city of Pesaro's prosecutor, police officers searched BBSs' offices and operators' homes throughout the country. The final result was the shutting down of more than 100 BBSs and the seizure of such items as PCs and modems, answering machines and audio tapes. Under public and media pressure, the operation soon ground to a halt, with dismal results: only a handful of actual "pirates" went to jail, while most of the BBSs involved were never able to go back online again. Also, most of those who went to trial without any wrong-doing, decided to play a low-profile role in court thus coming to easy terms. Very few others, like Taranto-based nonprofit Peacelink's coordinator Giovanni Pugliese, opted instead to go all the way through: after refusing to pay a hefty fine (10 million Italian Lira, about US $ 5,500), he is still waiting a full trial.

"The crackdown needed to be done--software piracy has become the national entertainment in Italy," declared Gaetano Savoldelli Pedrocchi, prosecutor of the city of Pesaro at the time, in an interview for Sottovoce magazine. "Unfortunately, the operation rapidly became too widespread for our forces: right now, here in Pesaro, there are only three of us prosecutors, quite busy with criminal trials, in court all day long. We will try to do our best with the least possible damage for everybody."

Perhaps it's true that history always repeats itself, but let's just hope this time that the damage will be truly minimal for everybody. The only problem is that, despite the media buzz on this "Internet boom" reverberating as far as Southern Europe, all these circumstances inevitably lead to a scary question: Is the cyberscene in Italy really that bad? Are Italian citizens to be left out of the digital revolution?

A May poll by Milan's Bocconi University estimated Italy's Internet users at 2.6 million, roughly 5% of the entire population--a big jump from the 1.5 million surfers counted the previous year. During the first five months of the current year, 630,000 people opened new Internet accounts as a direct result of policies adopted by Telecom Italia since last January, when its monopoly was finally ended. Italian phone rates, traditionally among the highest in the world (up to 10 times higher than the U.S. average), are slowly becoming cheaper and more flexible, particularly for Internet users. After working hard to secure as many customers as possible during the last two years of its monopoly, Telecom Italia currently offers up to 50% discount rates for Net connections (restrictions apply). In March 1997, the company signed an agreement with the Department of Education to offer Internet services in 15,000 schools nationwide at reduced fees, but the project is still in its initial stages and teachers greatly lack resources and adequate support.

These major changes in Italy's telecommunications policies--too little, too late in the eyes of many critics--are mostly attributable to the arrival of such aggressive rivals as Albacom (British Telecom, Bnl, Eni and Mediaset), Infostrada (Olivetti-Mannesmann), Wind (a partnership including Enel, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom) in the phone market.

User demographics indicate that most people log on to the Internet from their workplace (35%), are male (72%) and like to shop online: 128,000 Italians have bought at least one item on the Net, usually software (25%), books and CDs (21%). Not too bad for a typically technophobic population (with the exception of the telefonini, cellular phones, of course). Still, the Italian "digerati" are an elite portion of the population, mostly living in the Northern regions, professionals, well educated, and age 25-35.

At the same time, there is a high level of fragmentation online, with many newbies and chat-fans, business executives and grassroots activists jumping on the Net wagon--all of them struggling to find their own niche, some of them already abandoning the ride, bored and disappointed. What is it missing then? Perhaps a sort of networking attitude-that free exchange of resources and ideas that has characterized the Internet at large since its inception. What is needed is that special flavor of a local cyberculture, a new hybrid of Mediterranean style and Net-head Zeitgeist--coupled, of course, with the lure of expanding e-commerce.

"Probably the actual 'boom' of the Internet in Italy is starting right now, and not a couple of years ago when we wrote about it." This is the opinion of Stefania Garassini, executive editor at Virtual magazine, almost the only publication focused on the exploration of technology, art and culture. "The recent growth of new users and the arrival of Lycos and Yahoo! in Italian, are clear signals that our public is interested in and is looking for original content. Now is the ideal moment to come out with fresh ideas and new material online, but it has to be made-in-Italy."

Some of this much-needed originality can be found in the Apogeo publisher's activities, for instance. Usually focused on manuals and how-to books about Netscape and Unix, or the notorious "For Dummies" series translated into Italian, two years ago Milan-based Apogeo decided to open a new series, "Connessioni," focusing on the converging areas of society, technology and culture. Some of the titles published for that series include the self-explanatory Spaghetti Hacker and Gens Electrica, an anthology on digital culture including both Italian and U.S. authors. Also, the Web-zine, targeting information technology and the local networking scene, was launched last April and is already a big hit. Finally, on a more radical path, we find Shake, a cultural group quite active in Milan: They set up event happenings (such as last May's tour hosting Lee Felsenstein, co-founder of Berkeley's Community Memory project in '73), and publish Decoder, a techno-political quarterly magazine, and books like Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown and Hakim Bey's T.A.Z. An upcoming Decoder special issue will be dedicated to law enforcement operations and electronic communications in Italy.

Unfortunately, these and similar initiatives (too numerous to be mentioned here) tend to operate in isolation from each other and from the rest of the local "meat-space." It's not unusual for news about an event happening in Milan to be routed to my Mac in San Francisco before it reaches the cyber-folks living in Rome. In Italy people still learn about the Internet from the press (not even through radio or TV), which, in turn, appears to be poorly informed about what is actually happening online. For bad or good, politicians and intellectuals are still uninterested in Net affairs, and the same is true of investors and big corporations. Ironically, the appeal of electronic commerce and new jobs online is still unknown in a place plagued by unemployment and lack of entrepreneurial opportunities. And the growing social activism online is still too loose and scattered to really make a difference. Combine that with the heavy-handed and misguided attitudes of the magistrate community in their dealings with the Net, and you'll agree: it's not easy to be an electronic citizen these days in Italy. Suggestions? Roll up our sleeves, popolo di Internet!

A long-time media activist in Italy, Bernardo Parrella now telecommutes from San Francisco, CA as a freelance journalist. [email protected]

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