Berlusconi's Government Plans to Severely Restrict Online Video in Italy

Also makes ISPs responsible for the content they serve

The recent Google China debacle has raised the issue of Internet censorship again and made more people aware of the restrictions governments like China's enforce on its citizens. And many probably felt lucky that they didn't live in a country that limits their access to information and the Internet in particular. What they likely failed to realize is that it's not just third-world, communist countries that want to regulate Internet use, many western 'democracies' are doing the same. Italy, the country that gave us Michelangelo and Mussolini, is about to pass laws which would effectively block its citizens from uploading videos online.

A new law passed by Berlusconi's government on December 17 and set to go into effect on January 27 would require anyone wanting to upload a video to have an official authorization from the Italian Communications Ministry, similar to the one required of all TV broadcasters. Practically, this makes sites like YouTube unusable for the regular Italian.

But the law doesn't stop here, not only will it prevent Italian citizens from uploading videos, it will also prevent them from watching the ones the government deems 'illegal'. As in many places in the world, this restrictive measure is hidden under the cloak of copyright infringement. Under the proposed rules, online video sites would fall under the jurisdiction of Italy's communications regulators which will have the power to order them to remove the videos it doesn't like. And if that doesn't work, it can also order ISPs to block access to that content at will.

Google which is directly involved, is, expectantly, not pleased with the developments. "There’s a little concern," Marco Pancini, Google’s European Public Policy Counsel, told Bloomberg in an interview. “It tries to give Internet service providers the same responsibilities as television networks, which manage content, while YouTube only makes its platform available” to the general public, he also said. At the same time Google is happy to censor results in Australia, for example, to comply to local laws.

Under the proposed law, YouTube would be severely affected in the country, so Google's concern is understandable. This is amplified by the pending legal issues in which Google is involved in Italy. In one lawsuit, several high-ranking executives at the company are facing jail time over an offensive video uploaded to YouTube. At the same time, Google is faced with having to pay 500 million euros ($724 million) in damages to the country's biggest private TV broadcaster Mediaset SpA for alleged copyright infringement.

Coincidentally, Mediaset happens to be owned by none other than Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who, again coincidentally, also happens to be the biggest promoter of the law that would neuter YouTube in Italy. Controlling the public TV broadcaster RAI through the government and the country's biggest private TV network directly, Berlusconi has a pretty good handle on what Italian citizens can and can't see on TV. The problem is that people are still getting access to unbiased information through the Internet, but this should change soon enough if he gets his way. He has tried before by planning to enforce the same regulations on bloggers, which apply to regular newspapers and media organizations. In this case, the motivation behind the law has more to do with economical goals, as Mediaset is said to be moving into IPTV, something that would go much smoother if competition from online outlets would be eliminated. This is the view held by the political opposition, rights organizations in Italy and other public figures and journalists in the country.

But this couldn't be further from the truth, says Paolo Romani, Berlusconi’s undersecretary of communications who drafted the proposed law. In fact, it is merely the implementation of an EU directive on product placement. But the directive would extend to online video, not just TV broadcasters as originally intended. The decree also has several additions not present in the original directive from the EU, but which, conveniently, serve Mediaset's economic interests at the expense of its competitors, like the increase in the number of advertising minutes the broadcasters can serve in an hour. Paolo Romani claims that the decree doesn't stray too far from the original directive and is clearly not intended to stifle free speech "or the possibility of expressing one's ideas and opinions through blogs and social networks," as he told the ANSA news wire service.

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