bernardo parrella on Fri, 9 Oct 1998 10:30:39 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> report on cyber-italy

[ An article about the digital scene in Italy I recently wrote, published
in the US in the current issue of Educom Review magazine (Sept-Oct 98) ]



by Bernardo Parrella

At 10:30 in the morning on Saturday, June 27, 1998, the Isole nella Rete
(INR) server, Italian outlet for the European Counter Network
(, was being shut down and seized by the Postal Police in
Bologna for "defamatory" material posted on its system. The news struck
Italian media even before INR's several hundred users could realize what had
happened: nobody informed them that their incoming mail was irreparably lost
or that the 15,000 pages published on its Web site were no longer available.
The reason behind such a sudden and serious event? A State Prosecutor in the
northern city of Vicenza had the brilliant idea of ordering the seizure to
"prevent the prolonged crime of defamation" against a travel agency in
Milan, Turban Italia Srl.

According to the warrant issued by Dott. Paolo Pecori, the operation came
after the publication on the Web site of a message signed by
"Collettivo Spartakus", a Vicenza-based collective group, entitled
"Solidarity with Kurdistan people -- Boycott tourism in Turkey." Originally
posted on the mailing list <>, which is devoted to issues
related to the so-called social centers and their political activities, the
message was then published on the Web through a typical automatic
procedure. It included the actual transcription of a printed flyer publicly
distributed in the streets and even broadcast on local radio programs, as
part of a solidarity campaign with Kurds being persecuted by Turkish
government and launched by several political and cultural associations in
Italy. Among other things, the document called for
a boycott of tourism in Turkey and particularly of Turban Italia services,
claiming that the travel agency had strong financial ties to former Turkish
Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, "organizer of death squad operations against
Kurdistan people and other political opponents."

"Question: what's the duty of a judge faced with a defamatory message found
on an Internet site?" This is the opening sentence of a story published the
following day in the leading daily, *la Repubblica*. Answer: "First option
(based on rationality and common sense, judicially correct): to seek the
immediate removal of the message. Second option (heavy, authoritarian,
judicially questionable): to give order to seize the server. That is: to
control one voice, we shut everybody up." The same opinion could be found in
other newspapers and national media, not to mention among the online
community at large, with supportive messages coming from other countries
such as Spain, France, Holland, the U.S. In other words, there is worldwide
consensus in the telecommunications as well as in the judicial arena that an
Internet service provider (ISP) may not be held liable for material posted
on its system. This position was recently confirmed by the U.S. Supreme
Court regarding a 1995 defamation case involving America Online. But of
course, for those living at the far end of this evolving frontier known as
cyberspace (as the Italians doubtless are), the scene is still much more
confused and chaotic than anywhere else.

The unfortunate incident involving the INR server seizure looks even worse,
and possibly "politically" motivated, because it strikes a small nonprofit,
progressive organization used by a couple of hundred people and associations
working on a political and social level, as well as progressive and
grassroots affiliations based in Italy and abroad. Founded in Milan in March
1996, was offering Web space and Internet services to 120 groups
(ranging from far leftist to human rights activists, from social centers to
cultural associations) and about 100 individual users. Some of them include:
Lila (Italian League Against AIDS), Italy-Cuba Association, Telefono Viola
(psychiatric abuse hot-line), ADL (workers union), Spain's CNT, several
web-zines (.Zip, Necron, London's Freedom Press), local bands (99 Posse,
Sunscape, Electra) and radio stations (Radio Black Out, Radio Sherwood,
Radio Onda d'Urto). Also very active were several mailing lists hosted on
the same server, including one in support and solidarity with Mexican rebels
in the Chiapas region and "cyber-rights", the only Italian list open to
public discussion about privacy, encryption and free speech online. The
<> list and its subscribers were essential to the
success of HackIt98, the first public meeting ever organized by and devoted
to the Italian hacker community, held in Florence in June (a couple of
weeks previous the INR seizure) and attended by approximately 1,000 people.

Fortunately, less than 72 hours after the law enforcement measure, the
server was returned to INR representatives in Milan (a Vicenza judge did
not validate Prosecutor's order) and now it's up and running again stronger
than ever -- but its members and the general public are still awaiting a
reasonable explanation from justice officials for their actions. In the
meantime, many supporting initiatives blossomed and are still
proliferating: mirror sites set up worldwide, lawyers overloaded with yet
more work, politicians involvement issues, maybe even the birth of an
independent agency devoted to info distribution and legal assistance in
protection of cyber-rights.

It is worth noting that a similar event happened in Italy four years ago. In
May 1994, "Operation Hardware 1" was launched to stop illegal software
duplication and distribution. In fact, the "Fidobust," as the operation was
quickly dubbed, became the first nationwide crackdown against Italian BBSs,
mostly being part of the FidoNet network, even larger than the infamous US
"Operation Sundevil" of 1990. Acting after 173 warrants issued by the city
of Pesaro's prosecutor, police officers searched BBSs' offices and
operators' homes throughout the country. The final result was the shutting
down of more than 100 BBSs and the seizure of such items as PCs and modems,
answering machines and audio tapes. Under public and media pressure, the
operation soon ground to a halt, with dismal results: only a handful of
actual "pirates" went to jail, while most of the BBS involved were never
able to go back online again. Also, most of those who went to trial without
any wrong doing, decided to play a low-profile role in court coming thus to
easy terms. Very few others, like Taranto-based nonprofit Peacelink's
coordinator Giovanni Pugliese, opted instead to go all the way through:
after refusing to pay an hefty fine (10 million Italian Lira, about US $
5,500), he is still waiting a full trial.

"The crackdown needed to be done -- software piracy has become the national
entertainment in Italy", declared Gaetano Savoldelli Pedrocchi, prosecutor
of the city of Pesaro at the time, in an interview for *Sottovoce* magazine.
"Unfortunately, the operation rapidly became too widespread for our forces:
right now, here in Pesaro, there are only three of us prosecutors, quite
busy with criminal trials, in court all day long. We will try to do our best
with the least possible damage for everybody."

Perhaps it's true that history always repeats itself, but let's just hope
this time that the damage will be truly minimal for everybody. The only
problem is that, despite the media buzz on this "Internet boom"
reverberating as far as Southern Europe, all these circumstances inevitably
led to a scary question: is the cyberscene in Italy really that bad? Are
Italian citizens to be left out of the digital revolution?

A May poll by Milan's Bocconi University estimated Italy's Internet users at
2,600,000, roughly 5% of the entire population -- a big jump from the
1,500,000 surfers counted the previous year. During the first five months of
the current year, 630,000 people opened new Internet accounts as a direct
result of new policies adopted by Telecom Italia since last January, when
its monopoly was finally ended. Italian phone rates, traditionally among the
highest in the world (up to 10 times higher than the U.S. average), are
slowly becoming cheaper and more flexible, particularly for Internet users.
After working hard to secure as many customers as possible during the last
two years of its monopoly, Telecom Italia currently offers up to 50%
discount rates for Net connections (but restrictions apply). In March 1997,
the company signed an agreement with the Department of Education to offer
Internet services in 15,000 schools nationwide at reduced fees, but the
project is still in its initial stages and teachers greatly lack resources
and adequate support.

These major changes in Italy's telecommunications policies -- too late, too
little in the eyes of many critics -- are mostly attributable to the arrival
of such aggressive rivals as Albacom (British Telecom, Bnl, Eni and
Mediaset), Infostrada (Olivetti-Mannesmann), Wind (a partnership including
Enel, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom) in the phone market. Also, user
demographics indicate that most people log on to the Internet from their
workplace (35%), are male (72%) and like to shop online: 128,000 Italians
have bought at least one item on the Net, usually software (25%), books and
CDs (21%). Not too bad for a typically technophobic population (with the
exception of the "telefonini", cellular phones, of course).

Still, the Italian "digerati" are an elite portion of the population, mostly
living in the Northern regions, professionals, well educated, age 25-35,
male. At the same time, there is a high level of fragmentation online, with
newbies and chat-fans, business executives and grassroots activists jumping
on the Net wagon -- all of them struggling to find their own niche, some of
them already abandoning the ride, bored and disappointed. What is it missing
then? Perhaps a sort of networking attitude -- that free exchange of
resources and ideas that has characterized the Internet at large since its
inception. What is needed is that special flavor of a local cyberculture, a
new hybrid of Mediterranean style and Net-head Zeitgeist -- coupled, of
course, with
the lure of expanding e-commerce.

"Probably the actual 'boom' of the Internet in Italy is starting right now,
and not a couple of years ago when we wrote about it." This is the opinion
of Stefania Garassini, executive editor at *Virtual* magazine, almost the
only publication focused on the exploration of technology, art and culture.
"The recent growth of new users and the arrival of Lycos and Yahoo! in
Italian, are clear signals that our public is interested in and is looking
for original content. Now is the ideal moment to come out with fresh ideas
and new material online, but it has to be made-in-Italy." Some of
this much-needed originality can be found in the Apogeo publisher's
activities, for instance. Usually focused on manuals and how-to books about
Netscape and Unix, or the notorious "For Dummies" series translated into
Italian, two years ago Milan-based Apogeo decided to open a new series,
"Connessioni," focusing on the converging areas of society, technology and
culture. Some of the titles published for that series include the
self-explanatory *Spaghetti Hacker* and *Gens Electrica*, an anthology on
digital culture including both Italian and U.S. authors. Also, the Web-zine, targeting information technology and the local networking
scene, was launched last April and is already a big hit. Finally, on a more
radical path, we find Shake, a cultural group quite active in Milan: they
set up event happenings (such as last May tour hosting Lee Felsenstein,
co-founder of
Berkeley's Community Memory project in '73), and publish *Decoder*, a
techno-political quarterly magazine, and books like Bruce Sterling's *The
Hacker Crackdown* and Hakim Bey's *T.A.Z*. A *Decoder* special issue will
be soon dedicated to law enforcement operations and electronic
communications in Italy.

Unfortunately, these and similar initiatives (too numerous to be mentioned
here) tend to operate in isolation from each other and from the rest of the
local "meat-space." It's not unusual for news about an event happening in
Milan to be routed to my Mac in San Francisco before it reaches the
cyber-folks living in Rome. In Italy people still learn about the Internet
from the press (not even through radio or TV), which, in turn, appears to be
poorly informed about what is actually happening online. For bad or good,
politicians and intellectuals are still uninterested in Net affairs, and the
same is true of investors and big corporations. Ironically, the appeal of
electronic commerce and new jobs online is still unknown in a place plagued
by unemployment and lack of entrepreneurial opportunities. And the growing
social activism online is still too loose and scattered to really make a
difference. Combine that with the heavy-handed and misguided attitudes of
the magistrate community in their dealings with the Net, and you'll see by
yourself: it's not easy to be an electronic citizen these days in Italy.
Suggestions? Roll up our sleeves, popolo di Internet!


A long-time media activist in Italy, Bernardo Parrella now telecommutes from
San Francisco, CA as a free-lance journalist.

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