Italy's government adopted a decree over video and satellite television that has drawn criticism that the wording was ambiguous and did not do enough to safeguard the freedom of the Internet.
The decree was approved by the cabinet Monday, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi leaving the room at the time of the vote in recognition of the potential conflict of interests posed by his own extensive media holdings.
Reacting to widespread criticisms of earlier drafts of the decree from lawmakers, experts and members of the wWeb community, the new document provides a list of online audiovisual activities that will not be subject to the type of regulation currently foreseen for traditional television broadcasters.
Critics had feared that the freedom of the Internet would be seriously restricted by a requirement that websites hosting audiovisual material seek ministerial authorisation for their activities and be subject to the same kind of editorial responsibilities as traditional news organisations.
The new law states that activities that are not primarily commercial and are not in competition with broadcast television, such as private Internet sites and services involving the supply or distribution of audiovisual content generated by private users for the purpose of sharing and exchanging within a community of interests, were excluded from the definition of "audiovisual media services.
"Services where the audiovisual content was incidental or not the primary purpose of the service were also excluded from the definition, as were online games, search engines, newspaper Web sites and advertising sites.
The government was quick to reassure operators that where a web operation did qualify as an audiovisual media service, government authorisation would be easy to obtain. It would be enough to provide the Communications Authority with a "declaration of commencement of activities" and there was no question of the content being monitored in any way, Economic Development Minister Claudio Scajola said in a statement.
"The definitive text leaves no room for misunderstanding. There is no desire to gag bloggers and YouTube," said Roberto Cassinelli, a lawmaker with Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party. The government had modified the text to clarify its meaning and respond to the anxieties voiced by Italy's Internet community, Cassinelli said in a prepared statement. "This is a juridicially correct text that does nothing to undermine freedom of expression or the creativity of Internet users.
"Opposition lawmakers claimed credit for the toning down of the original document but reacted with much less enthusiasm, criticising the government's decision to introduce the new rules by decree rather than after a full debate in parliament. "It would have been clearer to exclude Internet completely from a decree on television, and it would have avoided the interpretative uncertainties that are now inevitable," said Paolo Gentiloni, spokesman on communications for the opposition Democratic Party.
Guido Scorza, the president of the Institute for Innovation Policies and a leading expert on copyright law, also expressed disappointment. The wording of the decree was ambiguous and it failed to keep pace with technological innovation, Scorza wrote in an article for the online magazine Punto Informatico.
"Technology moves faster than the lawmakers, so tomorrow morning, faced by a new platform for sharing audiovisual content - let's imagine a 'video-twitter' - it will be necessary to try and place it in one of the excluded categories and when, as seems likely, that proves impossible, qualify it as an 'audiovisual media service' with all the consequences that implies for the operator," Scorza wrote.
Scorza added that it would be difficult to establish when a videoblog was "not primarily commercial" and to define the moment when it began to enter into competition with traditional broadcast TV. The most positive aspect of the EU directive - the shielding of content platforms from editorial and legal responsibility for the material they hosted - had not found adequate expression in the decree drafted by deputy minister for communications Paolo Romani, Scorza said.
The commercial importance of the sector regulated by the Romani decree was underscored by the publication of a report Wednesday predicting that audiovisual services in Italy would generate a combined revenue of more than €10 billion (US$14 billion) by the year 2014. Audiovisual services distributed over the Internet were expected to grow at the fastest rate, or 65 percent per year, in the period from 2008 to 2014, according to the report by researchers from DLA Piper and the e-Media Institute.