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Proposed web bill sparks censorship row

Online fanclubs for Berlusconi attacker 'show new law needed'

16 December, 16:37
Proposed web bill sparks censorship row (ANSA) - Rome, December 16 - Proposed legislation against hate speech on the Internet sparked a heated debate about censorship and the freedom of expression on Wednesday amid controversy over online groups applauding the attack on Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

The proposal, by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, came amid outrage over a dozen or more groups on the popular social networking site Facebook praising a man who hurled a statuette at the premier, breaking his nose and two of his teeth.

A number of the groups contained overtly violent messages directed at the premier, prompting the interior ministry to demand the California-based website take the groups down.

Facebook administrators agreed saying the content would eventually have been removed anyway as a violation of the website's user agreement.

But Maroni said the incident demonstrated the need for legal guidelines ''allowing prosecutors and police to intervene when online content constitutes a crime''.

The statement caused alarm among free speech advocates on both sides of the political divide who feared the measure could pave the way for online censorship.

The interior minister promised that was not what he had in mind.

''Right now, prosecutors can identify a crime on the Internet, but they can't do anything about it,'' he said.

''What we need is a legal framework for enforcing Italian laws online''.

Maroni said he would welcome input from the opposition, where most of the criticism for the initiative has come, ''to arrive at a bill we can both agree on in parliament''.

The interior minister added that the government would abstain from rushing the law through as a decree law, provided the opposition agreed to put it on the fast track.

He said he would discuss the issue during a visit later in the day with President Giorgio Napolitano, and that more details about the proposal would become available after the government's cabinet meeting on Thursday.

But the leader of the Catholic-centrist opposition group UDC, Pier Ferdinando Casini, said ''any attempt to censor the Internet is absurd and undemocratic''.

''It's like wanting to stop people from using the telephone, because they might say ugly things to each other,'' he said.

''The Internet is a means of communication and the government needs to understand that people use it today just like they used to use the telephone''.

But Telecom Italia CEO Franco Bernabe' said ''I don't think the government wants to censor the Internet so much as prosecute people for using it to commit crimes like slander and instigation, which are already against the law''.

Public response to the news included an online petition on Facebook asking the government ''not to gag the Web''.

The largest online community in the world with over 350 million users, Facebook was the center of a prior free speech controversy in October over a group called ''Let's Kill Berlusconi''.

The group agreed to change its name under pressure from Facebook administrators, but was eventually removed altogether when users tried to change it back.

As of Wednesday, the website said its European office had already removed a handful of groups espousing violence against the premier.

But it said a number of ''non-threatening'' pages dedicated to his attacker would be left up, ''because controversial and even offensive content isn't reason enough to remove them".

According to a recent study, one in four Italians has an account on Facebook making it the second most visited website in Italy.

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