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

Image Source 1

Image Source 2

3 Responses to Italian Wikipedia Bids Arrivederci in Protest of Law

  1. Kendall Short says:

    I’m wondering what an individual would have to prove to show that the posted content is “detrimental to his or her image,” especially, as Katie points out, since Italy already has a law criminalizing defamation. How is Italy distinguishing the two offenses? Like defamation, would there be any requirement to show that the posted content is actually false, or could someone complain about content that presents accurate facts that portray the person in a negative light? According to the Italian Wikipedia letter, it appears that the content can be challenged regardless of its accuracy. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikipedia_Comunicato_4_ottobre_2011-en_-_Wikipedia_1317753339711.png). Given the provision in the Italian Constitution protecting the press, this new statute would seem to impose some rather severe restrictions on the press’s ability to hold its public officials accountable if the information it is posting is factually accurate.

  2. jcollins says:

    A similar law in the United States would have massive implications for the entertainment industry if it could be applied to gossip and style blogs. On the one hand, it would arguably be no great loss to society if bloggers were preempted from writing hateful and low-minded commentary about celebrities and other public figures. We seem to have collectively accepted the notion that, if a person chooses to live his life in the spotlight, he forfeits any and all privacy rights.

    However, websites such as Wikipedia, and even entertainment blogs, serve positive social functions, as well. Rather than regulating free expression, one possible answer to public figures’ concerns might be found in stricter regulation of the information-gathering portion of such publications. For instance, instead of forcing entertainment blogs to take down objectionable or potentially defamatory posts, maybe there should be greater regulation of paparazzi conduct.

    Anti-paparazzi laws were recently strengthened in California, allowing for those who commission photographs of celebrities, in addition to the paparazzi themselves, to be held liable for invasion of privacy penalties. The new California laws also ratchet up the penalties for photographers who endanger their celebrity targets. The article I read can be found at http://inforrm.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/californias-new-anti-paparazzi-laws-michael-cameron/. Might such legislation serve a similar function in preventing the spread of disparaging information, without quelling free speech rights?

  3. Ilana says:

    This reminds me of the scandal over the falsities in Wikipedia’s biography of John Siegenthaler. For 132 days, Siegenthaler’s Wikipedia page stated that, “for a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” John Siegenthaler wrote an article in which he described the pain and embarassment the false accusations caused him, along with the absence of a legal recourse against Wikipedia. That article is available at http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm.