Luca Bruno/AP
Bernardo Provenzano

Italy Looks to Block Pro-Mafia Facebook Content

February 12, 2009 07:28 AM
by Josh Katz
Italy is considering legislation that would allow certain content to be taken down on Web sites; pro-Mafia Facebook groups spurred the measure.

Italian Bill Targets Web Sites Such as Facebook

Italian lawmakers are currently discussing legislation that would force certain Web sites, such as Facebook, to remove content that defends or promotes criminal activity. The Chamber of Deputies must pass the measure to become a law. Italy’s printed press is already held to such requirements, according to Bloomberg.

A Facebook group first generated controversy in January. The group, which boasts almost 500 fans, suggested that Sicilian Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano, charged with calling for more than a dozen murders, should be sainted. Another group with more than 900 members praises Mafia boss Salvatore Riina, who is infamously known as “The Beast” for his violent actions.

Authorities arrested Riina in 1993 after he spent more than 20 years on the lam. Provenzano succeeded him, but he was caught in 2006. Both bosses are serving a number of life sentences, according to The New York Times.

However, the Times also noted in January that such fondness for the mafia is not universal in Italy. According to the paper, “a campaign calling on Facebook to remove pro-Mafia pages has been gaining momentum, while thousands of Facebook members have joined new anti-Mafia groups.”

“The Internet must be free, but it can’t be a jungle where good people and murderers are indistinguishable,” Sen. Gianpiero D’Alia, the lawmaker who introduced the legislation, said in reference to Facebook fan clubs praising members of the mafia, according to Bloomberg. “It’s indecent that Facebook said that it won’t allow pictures of mothers breastfeeding while there are no rules about removing groups of delinquents."

While D’Alia says the purpose of the legislation is to require sites only to pull such questionable content, Bloomberg says that “language of the bill doesn’t distinguish between blacking out pages or entire Web sites.”

“This creates a precedent for the preventive censure of unwanted opinions,” Marco Pancini, YouTube’s European policy consultant, told Bloomberg. “Because it’s aimed at service providers, this law won’t allow the filtering of single content pages, but will lead to entire platforms being blacked out.”

If Internet service providers fail to abide by the legislation and restrict access to Web pages, they could potentially incur fines up to 250,000 euros ($322,338). The bill also says that it would be a felony to “incite others to commit crimes on the Internet,” and it would be “punishable by up to five years in prison,” Bloomberg writes.

Related Topic: Italy could jail Google execs over video

Google’s global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and three other executives went to trial in Milan, Italy, on Feb. 3 for a clip that appeared on Google Video in 2006 that was considered inappropriate. The prosecutor is charging the executives with defamation and with failing to protect the privacy of a boy, which is a criminal offense in the country that could jail the executives for up to three years, according to the Financial Times. The case has been adjourned until Feb. 18.

In the 2006 video, four students beat up a 17-year-old with Down syndrome. Thousands of users viewed the video and the Italian government complained before Google took it down less than 24 hours after it was posted, MediaPost reports.

Trevor Hughes, the director of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, says the case represents the first time privacy issues are the basis of a criminal complaint against individuals or a company, according to the Financial Times. 

How the court characterizes Google is a crucial point in the case: is it an Internet service provider or an Internet content provider? In Italy, a service provider only has to remove content deemed illegal after being informed, which Google did. But a content provider can be held responsible for its content, according to The New York Times.

In the United States, the law usually shields companies like Google from criminal charges related to content that users upload. In Europe, the protections are not as strong. According to MediaPost, “In 1997, a German court convicted Compuserve Deutschland head Felix Somm of distributing pornography because customers were able to download child pornography from the service. An appellate court later overturned that finding.”

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