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As of last week, readers of Italian Wikipedia could no longer view any of its over 870,000 articles, as the website replaced the content with a single letter from the “users of Wikipedia.” The letter explains the website’s preemptive shutdown in protest of pending legislation by the Italian Parliament. The proposed “Wiretapping Act” would require all websites to remove any content that any individual claims is detrimental to his or her image. Further, the law would mandate that websites that receive such complaints publish an unaltered correction to be provided by the complaining party. Websites would have just 48 hours to remove the offending content and post the correction, or else face up to a $16,000 fine. The law would provide no appeals mechanism for the website, and as Wikipedia points out, would apply “regardless of the truthfulness of the information deemed as offensive, and its sources.” The law would also apply to newspapers, blogs, and any other online publication, and would subject journalists to jail time for publishing “irrelevant” wiretaps from police investigations.
The driving force behind the bill is Italian Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, whose spate of recent scandals has marred his already controversial public image. As commentators have argued, a prime impetus for the legislation may have been the publication of Italian prosecutors’ wiretaps in connection with their investigation of Berlusconi on charges of paying an underage prostitute for sexual services. However, the Prime Minister has sought to deflect attention from himself by touting the law as a means of protecting the privacy rights of all Italian citizens.
Wikipedia, in its letter to Italian readers, condemns the law as a threat to the website’s core values of openness and neutrality, and to the broader principle of freedom from censorship. By noting that Italy already criminalizes defamation, Wikipedia seeks to demonstrate the superfluity of the proposed Italian law in protecting Italian citizens’ reputational interests. Additionally, the Italian Constitution entitles citizens to the right to “freely express thoughts in speech, writing, and by other communication” and confirms that the “press may not be controlled by authorization or submitted to censorship.” Wikipedia’s letter warns that the law will have a severe chilling effect, stifling online communication about any topic that could be perceived as injuring a party’s image. In citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides in part that everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, Wikipedia attempts to frame the law as a human rights violation.
Italian activists have answered the call by pledging to appeal the law, if passed, to the European Court of Human Rights and by urging lawmakers to limit its application to only professional news organizations, not citizen bloggers. Additionally, Italian activists have advocated for journalists to ignore the law in honor of their professional duty to inform the public.
Early reports indicate that Italian lawmakers have heeded the pleas of Italian journalists, amending the bill to apply to only large online news websites. Thus, Wikipedia’s impact may be more than symbolic if the bill becomes law and Italian journalists continue to unite as a check on the Italian Parliament. As the Italian legislature debates the final terms of the law, it appears that even the political will of Silvio Berlusconi may be powerless to overcome the democratization of media on the internet and of information’s desire “to be free.”
– Kathryn Brown
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