Italy and the Internet

May 16, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

(An English version of an essay published today in Italian in La Stampa, Turin)

I had the honor last week to give a lecture at the Italian Parliament, as part of an extraordinary effort by the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini, to host debates about the future of the Internet. No equivalent series has ever been held, or received the same serious attention at the United States Congress. And it was a refreshing reminder of what serious policymaking might be -- to see senior Members of one of Europe's most important democracies working to understand this, the most important platform for economic growth throughout the world.

The panel was opened by the President, emphasizing both the critical importance the network has for youth across the world, and the necessity to protect it against irrational and protectionist legislation. Italy is leading the push to get the Nobel Committee to consider the Internet for the Peace Prize. Hundreds within the Parliament have already signed the petition.

My own lecture emphasized the need for governments to resist the increasing extremism that marks debates about the Internet. Both Internet cheerleaders (as I have been fairly accused of being) and Internet opponents do too little to understand the truth in the other side's charges. Though the Internet has inspired an extraordinary range of creativity, artists are right to complain that illegal filesharing has harmed at least some of them. And though the explosion of free or near free news has given us unprecedented access to immediate information from around the world, journalists are right to worry that support for investigative journalism will disappear as media becomes less profitable. And though new standards of transparency by government, pushed especially by the Obama Administration, have made an unprecedented range of government data accessible to all, critics are right to be concerned about the ways that transparency can weaken, rather than strengthen, public trust in government. In each context, we must recognize that the Internet is not going away, and that we should celebrate the great value it has given us. But we should also find ways to minimize harms that openness might encourage.

At the end of my talk, however, I was surprised to hear the criticism of Vice-Minister Paolo Romani that I had not offered "specific solutions" to policy problems. Americans are often too blunt. Perhaps in my effort to compensate, I had been too subtle. For in each of the areas that I discussed, I had described specific policy recommendations that any democratic government should, in my view, pursue. And after listening to the interventions of the other 7 participants on the panel, I am even more convinced of this than I was before.

First, with respect to copyright: Governments need to recognize that the war we wage against our kids to stop illegal filesharing is unwinnable, and that we should be looking for other ways to assure the objective of copyright -- that artists be paid -- without criminalizing a generation.

Second, regarding journalism: We need stronger protections for independent journalists, to assure a meaningful check on government and corporate misbehavior.

And third, regarding trust in government: Governments need to be sensitive to the kinds of conflicts that tend to weaken faith in democracy.

Each of these three areas is directly relevant to the one specific Italian policy question that I did address, and with which Minister Romani has become most closely associated -- what the Press calls, the "Romani Decree." That decree purports to regulate online video sites such as YouTube under the same standards that apply to television broadcasting companies, such as Prime Minister Berlusconi's company. I criticized this approach, and in light of the three policy areas I addressed, it is not hard to see why.

With respect to copyright, Romani believes equal treatment would better protect copyright owners. But there's no relevant equivalence between a one-to-many broadcast curated by a single company, and a many-to-many video platform, making unselected uploaded content available to anyone who chooses to watch. Forcing both to live under the same rules is simply to force the YouTubes of the world to adopt rules that block a world of amateur created content that can't afford the clearance costs that professional content can. "Equal treatment" is just a thumb on the scale in favor of existing broadcast television.

Likewise with the Vice-Minister's defense of the idea that platforms such as YouTube should bear equivalent liability for harmful or offensive speech, like the horrific video of teenagers insulting a mentally handicapped teen. As You Tube "obviously," the Minister informed us, "had pre-clearance algorithms to block porn from You Tube," there "must be an algorithm they could use" to block other such offensive conduct as well.

But You Tube has no automatic filter for pornography on its site. It bans it, but must rely upon users to flag it as "inappropriate" first. And there is no computer scientist in the world who believes he has an algorithm for automatically distinguishing between the shameful insults of a mentally handicapped teenager and the normal playful interactions of kids. So once again, a rule that treats these different services as "the same" is simply a rule to favor broadcasters over the Internet.

Likewise with my concern about journalism: Services such as You Tube have become a critical tool for investigative journalists. Unlike broadcasts, which once made, effectively disappear, You Tube-like services never forget. A politician's claims one week can be compared with his claims the following week. Differences can be shown. Political pressure can then be brought to bear. Weakening the You Tubes of the Net by burdening them with broadcaster regulation simply weakens this important source of democratic accountability. Fears about liability will simply push more critical content off the wires.

Finally, my concern about trust: As I argued, the more we understand about what government does, the more opportunities there are for misunderstanding as well. Innocent acts may seem sinister because of apparently sinister associations, and a politician may have no easy way to correct how the act appears. So in the United States, the private funding of public elections leads most Americans to believe "money buys results in Congress" whether or not it does -- and even more so as groups such as MAPLight.org (on whose board I proudly sit) makes the links between financial contributions and legislative behavior even more clear and, in a word, icky.

Yet this is precisely the feeling one gets about Vice-Minister Romani's "decree." He may in good faith believe that his regulation is sensible. I have no basis to question his motives, and have no way of knowing exactly how much he understands about how the Internet actually works.

But in a government already so tightly tied to traditional broadcast television, any push to burden the Internet in a way that would only benefit traditional broadcast TV is, in a word, icky. When Italians recognize that these regulations have the obvious effect of protecting 20th century media from the competition of 21st century media, will they even listen to arguments about sensible policy? Will they even wonder to ask what possible justification for these regulations there might be?

The answer to these costs from transparency, of course, is not less transparency. It is setting up government so that reasonable people can't mistrust its motives, even when they see all. In the United States, that mistrust is an unavoidable consequence of privately funded public elections. In Italy, it is an unavoidable consequence of a government so intimately tied to traditional broadcast media. In both cases, the costs force the democracy to choose -- between the status quo and trust in democracy.

There is enormous skepticism and anger in both America and Italy about how democracy does, or does not work. In both countries, I suggest, the "specific policy recommendation" that Vice-Minister Romani asked for should be to worry more about responding to that anger by restoring democracy's trust.

The support of President Fini for the true principles of the Internet, and the leadership of Italy in getting the Nobel Committee to recognize this "weapon of mass construction" is a model the rest of the world should follow. But unfortunately, the conflict of a 20th century media government burdening 21st century media is a pattern followed by too much of the world already. It only muddies the message of good policy that President Fini is so keen to convey.