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The Blogfathers

The Blogfathers

Italy's Senate recently approved a bill that could wipe Italian bloggers off the face of the internet forever.

Illustration by Darren Thompspn

BLOGGERS NOW RANK THIRD—behind illegal immigrants and Roma refugees—as individuals considered dangerous to the Italian State. At least that’s what Senator Gianpiero D’Alia confirmed last February when he stood before parliament and proposed a bill that would force Italy’s internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down blogs, websites, and social networks for “crimes of opinion.”

Already approved by the Senate and awaiting the rubber stamp of the Chamber of Deputies, the bill would be added to the country’s anti-immigration “security package,” a series of emergency laws which allow doctors to report undocumented patients, vigilante street patrols to flush out “gli stranieri”—and now, if the Senate has its way, digital censorship.

D’Alia’s definitions would cover any website or forum, but in a country where the mainstream media is often regarded as manipulated by big business and government, many activists have taken to blogging as a way of airing their grievances. If ratified, D’Alia’s amendment—which he claims is necessary to regulate the spread of potentially offensive or extremist ideas on the internet—would effectively muzzle Italy’s lively online communities.

In a recent radio interview, the senator was asked to describe the sort of opinion that might get a blogger into trouble. “If I say that the Red Brigade were right to kill Aldo Moro,” he replied, citing the 1978 murder of a former prime minister, “this is called condoning a criminal act. That I do it on a blog, or with a telegram, or on a flyer, or with a press release doesn’t change anything—it’s still a crime, and will be prosecuted with anyone who acts as an accomplice by publishing this rubbish, including an internet administrator.”

On the question of punishment, D’Alia has been emphatic: the site, along with the offensive comment, will be purged. “If the site’s administrator doesn’t undertake the task of removing these subjects from his blog,” D’Alia says, “it’s fair that his site gets shut down.”

The so-called “D’Alia decree” was apparently drafted in response to a controversy that arose last December when the names and photos of Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, two of Italy’s most bloodthirsty Mafia bosses, appeared on a list of the most visited accounts on Facebook. The accounts were fake—both men have been in maximum-security prisons for several years—but the public was shocked by the thousands of “friends” the godfathers had amassed. These fans exalted the deeds of their “heroes,” and demanded they be freed.

The prank—which falls under the proposed law’s definition of using the internet to condone a crime, and thus would allow the Italian postal police to block out the popular site—enraged D’Alia. “I rarely go on Facebook because it makes me angry to see that mothers who are breastfeeding their children are censored on that site because it’s deemed aesthetically offensive, anti-aesthetic, and then it allows various groups to praise the Mafia.”

There’s just one problem with the credibility of D’Alia’s anti-Mafia stance: his own party. D’Alia is a member of the UDC (the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats), a political party with a focus on traditional Catholic values. Members include politicians, mayors, senators and parliamentarians—all Sicilian like D’Alia, but many with links to the Mafia. Salvatore Cuffaro, past vice-secretary of the UDC, was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking confidential information about anti-mob investigations. Saverio Romano, regional coordinator of the UDC, was investigated for Mafia associations with the charge of having introduced Cuffaro to mob bosses. The list of UDC members who have been investigated, arrested or sentenced for Mafia associations is quite long.

D’Alia has never been linked to the Mafia, but his UDC affiliation has left him open to accusations that the Mafia issue is a red herring; a ploy to exploit resentment ordinary Italians feel toward organized crime in an effort to stoke popular support for the bill. Moreover, by painting Facebook as Mafia-friendly (while ignoring his own party’s criminal history), D’Alia strengthens the impression of bloggers as delinquents that need to be brought to heel.

It also escapes no one that D’Alia’s efforts are part of a continuing effort by the Italian parliament—“octogenarian lawmakers elected by seventy-year-old pensioners,” in Bernhard Warner’s words—to curb a technology that flummoxes them. For the past two years, officials have sought to pass legislation requiring bloggers to register with the Ministry of Communication and submit to government regulation.

Walter Giannò, the Sicilian blogger who first reported on the Mafiosi Facebook accounts, suggests that misplaced fear about the internet may have led to an exaggerated response. “Senator D’Alia,” says Giannò, “immediately understood the serious phenomenon of the distortion of history and current affairs in play. But there’s no need to ‘blame’ the notebook:  blame the pen. The problem isn’t Facebook, the answer is not shutting down the site.”

Many opponents also describe the bill as pointless. Under current Italian law, a blogger can be dragged to court if any opinion appearing on his site has the characteristics described in article 110 of the penal code (“the promotion, organisation or direction of criminal activities”). The state, in other words, already has the tools necessary to regulate the internet.

But like most things in Italy, the truth is even more Machiavellian. The country is home to six national television stations. Three are public, controlled by the state, and three private, owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. With Berlusconi heading the government once again, the other three are back under his thumb. For some time in Italy, advertisements have been moving from television to the internet, where most Italians now get their information. YouTube’s popularity has even eclipsed that of Berlusconi’s TV stations. D’Alia’s law would thus hit two birds with one stone: it would give lawmakers control over any anti-government criticism appearing online and help Berlusconi quash the competition.

Italian bloggers, however, aren’t waiting around for the government to gag them.  Leading the protest is one of D’Alia’s fiercest enemies, ex-comedian, actor and activist Beppe Grillo, whose blog sits at the seventh spot on Forbes’ 2009 “The Web Celeb 25” list. Grillo knows he is one of the targets of the proposed law. His opposition to Italian politics, his ability to attract thousands of Italian youth to the piazza for his firebrand performances, and the fact that his blog is more closely followed than many Italian newspapers and TV news shows all make him dangerous to the Berlusconi government.

Grillo has mobilized his army: the millions who visit his blog every day. Photos of these readers holding “Free Blogger” signs have already circulated internationally.

Marco Pancini, Google Italia’s Public Policy Counsel, was no doubt conjuring up dictatorships like China when he declared, “[D’Alia’s law] cannot be passed. We need to avoid bringing Italy to the level of the worst countries in the world in matters of crimes of opinion.”

A Facebook page called “Salva i Blog!” has recently been created to provide “support and coordination” to the more than 30,000 “netizen clandestino” who are fighting the bill. But bloggers like Giannò have already started thinking about their future status as outlaws.

“I’d have no other option but to relocate,” he says. “What’s life like in Canada?”

(See the rest of Spring 2009, Issue 32)