Yesterday, Wikipedia temporarily hid its Italian edition in response to a new wiretap law currently under debate in the Italian Parliament. Wikipedia users trying to reach the Italian edition were redirected to a message explaining that the new law, if enacted, would make it impossible for Wikipedia to continue to operate for Italian users.
DDL Intercettazioni, the proposed wiretap law (see page 24, paragraph 29(a)), would require online publications and websites to publish a correction within 48 hours of receiving notice about any content that any third party believes is detrimental to his or her image, with scant safeguards against abuse or judicial involvement. Failure to publish a correction could result in a €12,000 fine.
It is unclear how this mandate would apply to websites that enable user-generated content – for example, a social network or a blog that allow users to comment on articles. Such websites should be protected under the Italian transposition of the E-Commerce Directive for the defamatory statements made by third party users. However, you can imagine that harmed victims may simply send requests for corrections to the user-generated content platform itself.
As Italian Internet activists have rightly pointed out, this requirement could profoundly chill freedom of expression and innovation online. Individual bloggers and platforms for user-generated content – including any website that allows users to comment on content – could face potentially enormous liability risk if the blogger or a third party user expresses an opinion that could offend the most delicate sensibilities. The only way to avoid this risk is to heavily police and restrict individual speech on their platform.
Wikipedia’s actions also highlight the impact of intermediary liability on access to information and knowledge. Available in 282 languages, Wikipedia has become an indispensable source of knowledge around the world and is an astonishing example of the kind of educational and participatory innovation the open Internet enables. If the Italian Parliament passes the proposed wiretap law, the Parliament would, in effect, shut Italy out of the global community of Wikipedia users.
While protection of reputation and honor of individuals is a worthy goal (as Wikipedia points out), measures taken to achieve this goal must be proportional under human rights standards. The measure proposed in the Wiretap Act would severely curtail freedom of expression, access to knowledge, and participation in culture. These unintended consequences must be fully examined and weighed as the Italian Parliament debates the proposed law.