Bloomberg.com: Facebook Says Italy’s Plan to Block Web Content Goes Too Far

Bloomberg.com: Facebook Says Italy’s Plan to Block Web Content Goes Too Far

Last Updated: February 12, 2009 08:43 EST
By Steve Scherer and Giovanni Salzano

Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) — Facebook Inc., the world’s largest social-networking site, said that it is concerned about Italy’s proposed law to force Internet providers to block access to Web sites that incite or justify criminal behavior.

‘We have not seen the language of the bill, but reports about it concern us,’ said Debbie Frost, a Facebook spokeswoman, in an e-mail. The legislation is ‘akin to shutting down the country’s entire railroad network because of some objectionable graffiti in one train station.’

The bill, passed in the Senate last week, would give the Interior Ministry the power to order Internet providers including Fastweb SpA, Telecom Italia SpA or Tiscali SpA to remove criminal content within 24 hours or face a fine as high as 250,000 euros ($320,850). Prosecutors would have to verify criminal content before the ministry can act, according to the bill.

Italian Senator Gianpiero D’Alia introduced the measure after the Italian press, including the country’s biggest newspaper Corriere della Sera, reported that there were fan groups on Facebook for convicted Corleone-born mafia bosses Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, who have been convicted of dozens of homicides and are serving multiple life prison sentences.

‘We take content that incites violence very seriously and we will work quickly to remove it,’ Frost said. ‘For every piece of controversial content posted to Facebook there are literally thousands of positive interactions fostering communication, fellowship, and commerce.’

Sainthood for a Murderer

While a fan group invoking ‘sainthood’ for Provenzano — with 433 members — was still posted today, Facebook also has a group hailing as heroes Palermo prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were assassinated on the orders of Riina after successfully prosecuting hundreds of mobsters. That group has 369,463 fans.

The aim isn’t to block sites like Facebook or YouTube totally if they contain criminal content, D’Alia said yesterday in an interview. Instead, the law is intended to force them to remove individual pages or groups, the senator said. The language of the bill itself doesn’t distinguish between blacking out pages or entire Web sites.

The legislation is flawed because Internet providers aren’t able to eliminate single elements from Web sites, Marco Pancini, European Public Policy Counsel for Google Inc., which owns YouTube, said yesterday in an interview. That will lead to the blocking of entire platforms if the law is passed, Pancini said.

Mediaset, YouTube

YouTube has the ability to eliminate potentially criminal or offensive material, Pancini said, adding that laws regulating criminal content in Italy already exist. An April 2003 law says that material must be removed immediately once a Web site is informed of illicit material in its domain.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose allies in the Senate helped pass the measure, owns Mediaset SpA, the country’s largest private broadcaster. Mediaset in July said it sued YouTube and Google for illegally distributing the television company’s content, seeking ‘at least’ 500 million euros in damages.

Berlusconi has campaigned every weekend for the last month for his candidate, Ugo Cappellacci, against rival Renato Soru in the elections for governor of the island of Sardinia, which are scheduled to be held on Feb. 15 and 16. Soru is the founder and owner of 17.7 percent — through a blind trust — of Internet- service provider Tiscali.

The Internet legislation was inserted as an amendment to a bill aimed at cracking down on crime that the Senate passed on Feb. 5. The measure still must pass in the Chamber of Deputies without being changed to become law.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steve Scherer in Rome at scherer@bloomberg.net.

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