This article originally ran in a October, 24, 2007 article in Times Online, back when I was a columnist there. Now that it's lost behind a firewall I've resurrected the original, unedited version here.
By Bernhard Warner
By G8 standards, Italy is a strange country to define. To put it simply, it is a nation of octogenarian lawmakers elected by slightly younger voters, 70-year-old pensioners. Everyone else is inconsequential.
The prime minister Romano Prodi is a spry 68, knocking off 71-year-old Silvio Berlusconi in last year’s election. President Giorgio Napolitano, 82, has six more years left on his term; his predecessor was 86 when he called it quits. In the unlikely event Italy declares war, the decision will come from a head of state that was a month shy of 20 when the Germans surrendered in World War II.
This creaky perspective is a necessary introduction to any discussion about Italian politics with outsiders, I find. If the Italian government seems unable to adapt to the modern world, the explanation is quite simple. Your country would operate like this too if your grandparents were in charge.
Recently, Italian lawmakers once again took aim at modern life, introducing an incredibly broad law that would effectively require all bloggers, and even users of social networks, to register with the state. Even a harmless blog about a favourite football squad or a teenager grousing about life’s unfairness would be subject to government oversight, and even taxation -- even if it’s not a commercial web site.
Outside Italy, the legislation has generated sniggers from hardly sympathetic industry observers. Boingboing cleverly reports Italy is proposing a “Ministry of Blogging.” Out-law.com plays it straighter, calling the measure an “anti-blogger” law.
I understand the lack of alarm in their tone. We’ve been down this road countless times. Panicky government officials, whether they are in Harare, Beijing or Rome (yes, this is the second time it’s been proposed here), pronounce a brand new muzzle for the internet, and clever netizens simply find a way around it. Even that agitated teen probably has a foolproof way of masking his IP address. And besides, it could be easily argued that a Blogger or Typepad blog is hosted on a server well outside the bel paese, making a stupid law virtually unenforceable. And finally this is Italy, a place where plumbers and captains of industry alike are serial tax evaders. Don’t sweat it, amico. Enjoy the sunshine, vino rosso and tagliatelle.
Maybe it is because of all these obvious points that the draft law is already going through some revisions. If it is ratified – and at the moment it looks frighteningly likely – the Ministry of Communications would decide who must register with the state.
This is hardly comforting. The intent of this draft law, as it was written when it breezed through the Council of Ministers on Oct. 12, would be to gag bloggers, who, for those in power, have become a particularly problematic force of late. They are lead by the crusading (some say “populist”) Beppe Grillo, a comedian-turned-activist-turned-blogger. Grillo is one of the best-read commentators on Italian life, both in and, thanks to his English-language blog (http://www.beppegrillo.it/english.php), outside of the country. He agitates on behalf of the disenfranchised (code for: Italian youth), campaigning for more transparent government and business.
Grillo believes the law is directed at him. Whether it is or not doesn’t really matter. The law’s impact would turn all bloggers in Italy into potential outlaws. This could be great for their traffic, I realise, but hell on the business aspirations of an Italian web startup, not to mention any tech company that wants to sell its blog publishing software in Italy, or open a social network here. In addition to driving out potential tech jobs, the stifling of free speech also can have a dramatic chilling effect on all forms of free expression, the arts and scholarship.
I am thinking specifically here of my students. I teach an introductory journalism course at John Cabot University in Rome. My students cover the city and university affairs in an online blog-style newspaper called “The MatthewOnline”. If this law is to pass, we could not simply move the blog to an offshore server. We’d be one of the few who would be forced to abide by this crazy law.
Each semester, I’d have to get 20 or so students registered with the Ministry of Communications, a bureaucratic nightmare that no doubt would take more than a semester to complete, and would turn a generation of idealistic journalists away from the field forever, perhaps into something more rewarding like the assault rifle lobby. So, instead of teaching aspiring journalists about news reporting by having them do some actual news reporting, we could spend three months doing lead-writing exercises from a textbook.
And so I appeal to Italy’s Communications Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, a former journalist himself, and Ricardo Franco Levi, the lawmaker who conceived of this wrong-headed bill. Is silencing the youth of this country really the best solution to dealing with a few squeaky wheels?