The Italian government has proposed introducing new restrictions on the Internet after a Facebook fan page for the man who allegedly attacked Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday drew almost 100,000 users in under 48 hours.
But the planned clampdown on Internet hate speech sparked a heated debate over censorship and freedom of expression, leading Interior Minister Roberto Maroni to execute a partial U-turn.
Maroni and Justice Minister Angelino Alfano promised swift action to punish those who instigate violence on the web, suggesting the government might pass an emergency decree to create new sanctions for the offense. But Maroni was at pains to reassure the public that any new legislation would be fully debated in parliament and would not curtail freedom of expression.
The controversy followed the creation of several Facebook pages praising Massimo Tartaglia, the mentally disturbed man accused of hitting Berlusconi in the face with a statuette of Milan's gothic cathedral, sending the prime minister to the hospital with broken teeth and a broken nose.
Lawmakers from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party argued in parliament that the attack on the prime minister was the result of a climate of hate generated by virulent opposition criticism and expressed outrage that so many Italians could justify such a serious physical assault.
Facebook, which has been criticised for its slow reaction to previous complaints about groups that praised the Mafia or were titled "Let's Kill Berlusconi," moved rapidly to eliminate the most offensive sites.
"Promoting violence or posting threatening content is not permitted on Facebook," the company said in a statement. "We will take quick action to respond to reports and remove any content reported to us that makes direct threats against an individual."
Maroni originally indicated the government was considering measures that would speed up the removal of offensive material, by allowing police to appeal directly to a judge without passing through a prosecutor, impose fines on hate crime offenders, and introduce filters to prevent access to sites that instigate violence.
Members of his own party, however, were quick to warn against any curtailment of Internet freedom, suggesting that current laws already provide sufficient protection against the criminal use of the web.
"Beware of the 'China Syndrome', of the temptation of preventive censorship," wrote the online magazine ffwebmagazine.it, controlled by Berlusconi's restive ally Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. "The act of a madman (and the idiocy of those who praise him) cannot call into question, even in the most distant way, our freedom of expression."
Pierferdinando Casini, leader of the opposition Christian Democrat Union (UDC), warned against introducing illiberal measures in the wake of the Tartaglia controversy. "In the United States Obama receives constant intimidation via Internet but it never occurs to anyone to censor the Net," Casini told parliament.
Speaking in a video chat on the Corriere della Sera website, Maroni praised Facebook's rapid intervention to take down the most offensive pages. "The collaboration of the service provider is fundamental. I want to avoid that my 12 year old son, when he navigates online, could come across pages that exalt terrorism, Mafia or paedophilia," Maroni said.
The interior minister said he intended to create a working group representing all Internet stakeholders to develop a collaborative approach to tackling Internet crime.
Opponents of Berlusconi have also had reason for complaint following the Tartaglia attack. As well as sites advocating violence against the prime minister, Facebook users have created a site called "Let's bludgeon Antonio Di Pietro (one of Berlusconi's fiercest critics) to death". By Tuesday it had amassed some 90,000 members.
Opponents of the prime minister were also irate when they discovered that their names had been corralled into groups expressing solidarity with Berlusconi. The Rome daily La Repubblica reported that 2 million people who had joined a group in support of the Abruzzo earthquake victims found themselves diverted into a pro-premier group.
Facebook has so far proved popular in Italy, notching up some 12 million active users in the 15 months since the Italian language site was introduced.
Angelo Bonelli, the head of the Green Party, said his supporters would be staging a protest in front of parliament, despite a banning order from Rome's police chief. "We will protest anyway, peacefully and civilly, because what is happening to Internet and to WebTVs is an authoritarian crackdown unworthy of a democratic country," Bonelli said.