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Cabinet mulls controversial Web bill

Unruly demonstrations also considered in new legislation

17 December, 18:30
Cabinet mulls controversial Web bill (ANSA) - Rome, December 17 - Bills imposing stiff penalties for threatening web content and unruly demonstrations caused a stir on Thursday when it was presented before the cabinet.

The draft laws were presented by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni in reaction to clashes between protestors and police at student demonstrations last week, in addition to groups on Facebook applauding last Sunday's attack on President Silvio Berlusconi.

Over 50,000 people signed up for the groups hailing a man with mental health problems who hit the premier in the face with a statuette on Sunday, breaking his nose and two of his teeth.

Facebook administrators said Wednesday they would take down any groups with overtly violent content, but leave up any that were merely ''controversial or offensive''.

Government sources said the bill dictates protocol for acting against Web content constituting offences like ''incitement to commit a crime''.

The law would reportedly give users 24 hours to remove the offending content or face a fine.

When users can't be identified, responsibility would pass to Web administrators who would have three days to remove the material or risk sites being closed down for as long as a month.

Another bill would make counter-protests and sit-ins against the rallies or opposing groups a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.

Throwing objects at demonstrations would also become a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in jail.

Following the meeting, Infrastructure Minister Altero Matteoli said ''we have a basic agreement about the bills, but still need to work out some of the finer points''.

Cabinet insiders said a number of ministers were reluctant to make website administrators liable for content their users published, while others, such as Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, wanted to take an even harder line against troublemakers at demonstrations.

Matteoli added that the government would seek the opposition's support for the bills, but didn't rule out ramming them through with a decree if it met resistance.

Leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani said he would ''read anything they send us'' but that he couldn't make any promises.

''We're very, very concerned about some of the restrictions being discussed here,'' he said. The proposed bills have drawn stern criticism from digital freedom advocates in Italy who fear the legislation could pave the way to censorship.

The head of the online rights group Agora' Digitale, Luca Nicotra, said ''there's no need for new laws specific to the Internet just to enforce old ones already in place''.

Nicotra said his group was ready to lead an online protest against the bill through many of the channels it might conceivably target, such as Facebook.

The social networking website was the main tool behind the demonstration this month which brought thousands of anti-Berlusconi protestors into the streets of Rome.

Senate Speaker Renato Schifani said the government had an ''obligation to keep these websites from turning into odes to violence''.

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