Friday, 26 September 2008

Blogging without a licence

El Reg today offers a disquieting story from Italy, where a little-noticed ruling by a Sicilian judge has potentially made all Italian blogs illegal.

Under a law dating to 1948, it is an offence to publish a newspaper without a licence from the authorities. In May this year, a blogger and local historian Carlo Ruta was fined and his website taken down after a judge decided that a blog was equivalent to a newspaper - on the bizarre grounds that both have headlines. More pertinently, perhaps, a law of 2001 extended regulation of the press to the Net. At the time, ministers were quick to reassure the public that the new provisions would only apply to commercial media organisations. But, as we should have learned to expect, such assurances are generally worthless since laws, once passed, tend to take on a life of their own.

One Italian politician has gone so far as to claim that "current logic means that almost the entire Italian internet, by its very nature, could be considered illegal – stampa clandestina – which is a complete contravention of the democratic rulebook". Not to mention the principle of free expression.

Quite why Ruta was singled out from among an estimated 5 million Italian blogs is unclear, though it has been suggested that he had shown rather too much interest in the links between local politicians and the Mafia. Since then, a Calabrian blogger has apparently fallen foul of the same law, "suggesting the genie is well and truly out of the bottle". Unless the ruling is overturned or the law changed, it would seem that any blogger voicing controversial or inconvenient opinions risks being taken to court.

As for Carlo Ruta himself, he has moved his material to a new site, which continues to host a number of Mafia-themed articles (though none of them strike me as particularly controversial or politically sensitive). There's also a statement, in English as well as Italian, and signed by numerous journalists and writers, on the "Freedom Emergency in Italy". The English version is clumsily literal ("the reasons are heavy as stones") but makes an impassioned plea for free expression, which "being representative of all other liberties, and a defining feature of a democratic state, is a vital aspect of the Italian constitution."

The statement goes on to denounce the Italian government as "increasingly illiberal" and warn that "the wave of indignation will not stop soon". The future of the Internet, last frontier of democracy, is at stake, as is the constitution itself, which we learn, in wonderfully florid language, "was not born in drawing rooms, nor in the corridors of power, but in the mountains, alongside the bodies of murdered heroes, and among the fires of cities in revolt." I assume that Ruta means World War II. After hymning the Net as "the cardinal place of our age, where democracy gains body and voice", and comparing the situation in Italy to Burma and Iran, it concludes in suitably ringing tones (and here again I substitute my own translation):

The sentence of the Sicilian court, wrote one blogger, may be seen as one of the last pearls of a legal necklace which day by day is turning into a garotte. We must do everything possible to avoid this happening. We must prevent them lighting the funeral pyre of free expression in Italy, and remember that such pyres often clear the way for repressive government.

Fortunately (for the rest of us) this law only applies to Italy. Technically, any blog visible in Italy is "published" there, but I think Tim Worstall goes too far when he claims, in the Spectator, that under the terms of the European Arrest Warrant, "if a warrant is issued for my arrest for this heinous crime, the British police are duty bound to deliver me up to the Italians without extradition hearings or even the presentation of any evidence." Since there is no equivalent in English law to the crime of stampa clandestina (and it doesn't come within the specified EAW categories), British bloggers are (for the moment) safe.

But it isn't only in Italy that the authorities go after inconvenient bloggers. Dizzy today pointed the way to the strange story of a Tameside blogger who was investigated by the police after allegedly upsetting local councillor Sean Parker-Perry. Parker-Perry turns out to be a aide to Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell - though he has recently resigned. Dizzy wonders if Purnell is clearing any skeletons from his closet in advance of a possible leadership bid. Tameside certainly sounds a little like Alaska.

There have also been moves afoot recently in the European parliament to consider some sort of regulation or registration scheme for blogs. A report by Estonian Socialist MEP Marianne Mikko - adopted in a vote this week - complained about "undetermined and unindicated status of authors and publishers of weblogs" and suggested that the appropriate authorities ought to know "who is writing and why". The EU seems to be particularly concerned that unregulated blogs may have helped the "No" campaign in the Irish referendum. Fortunately, the final resolution was watered down somewhat, instead calling for "an open discussion on all issues relating to the status of weblogs". Acknowledging the huge opposition her report had attracted from bloggers, Mikko said she wanted "to make it clear now that nobody is interested in regulating the internet".

Which is reassuring. Except that many people are all too obviously interested in regulating the Internet.