Italy's Government Seeks Control Over Online Videos

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi i i

hide captionItalian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's media company, Mediaset, is suing Google for nearly $800 million in damages for uploaded clips of its version of the Big Brother reality show.

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's media company, Mediaset, is suing Google for nearly $800 million in damages for uploaded clips of its version of the Big Brother reality show.

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Italy's government is drafting a decree that would give it control over online video content.

In a country where Internet usage is still relatively small, the measure is seen as an attempt by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to protect his TV empire from future competition from the freewheeling world of Google and YouTube.

Italians were among the first to enthusiastically embrace mobile phones.

Not so with the Internet. Just finding a WiFi hot spot is difficult. One of the few hot spots in Rome is a cafe filled with foreign expatriates hunched over open laptops.

One patron, Christian Lingreen, says his native Denmark has 100 percent Wi-Fi coverage — Italy maybe just 1 percent. "I love Italy," he says, "but I have to say [information technology], that is not their cup of tea."

Nearby sits Riikka Vanio of Finland, who is a mother of two children. "In the school, it's impossible to pass information to other parents through Internet, because none of them have Internet connection at home or not even e-mail address," she says. "So it's not part of their culture yet."

Nevertheless, Italy's right-wing government is going far beyond its European partners with the decree that would require Web sites with video content to request authorization and would mandate the vetting of copyrighted videos before they're uploaded.

Such measures are unprecedented in the West.

The man who drafted the decree is Telecommunications Deputy Minister Paolo Romani.

"If YouTube uploads film clips covered by copyright or produced by a broadcaster and uses them for a commercial purpose," Romani says, "this means YouTube has to be treated exactly in the same manner as a broadcaster."

The media rights group Reporters Without Borders says the decree would "pose yet another threat to freedom of expression in Italy."

The regulations are also seen as a challenge to Google's YouTube and other online video-sharing Web sites. Google's European public policy counsel, Marco Pancini, told the daily La Stampa last month that "it amounts to destroying the entire Internet system."

Since then, Pancini has met with Romani to press for changes. "We want to be sure that in the final text," Pancini says, "these rules are not applicable to a broadcaster using YouTube only to show archive videos or short extracts from a TV show, because in this case this would make it almost impossible to provide YouTube services in Italy."

The decree mandates vetting of video content to ensure it isn't considered pornographic or harmful to national security. Violators face fines of up to more than $200,000. It would create an administrative authority that will decide what can go online and what can't.

Media freedom advocates call it the "sheriff" of the Internet.

Alessandro Gilioli, a journalist and blogger for the magazine L'Espresso, says the decree will lead to censorship by means of red tape. "The way Italian government strangles the Web is through bureaucracy, not like in China — through bureaucracy, permissions, bureaucratic obstructions."

Critics of the decree see it as another example of Berlusconi's conflict of interest. He directly or indirectly controls nearly the entire Italian television system.

And the prime minister's TV company, Mediaset, plans to enter Internet TV. Mediaset is already suing Google for nearly $800 million in damages for uploaded clips of its version of the Big Brother reality show.

In addition, the Internet has become a prime means of communication for Italians disaffected with Berlusconi. Last December, hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied against him in Rome. The demonstration was organized exclusively online.

The next online-organized rally is set to take place this weekend outside the U.S. embassy. The slogan: "President Obama, please help the Internet in Italy."

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