An Italian high court ruling that Internet discussion groups do not have the same freedom-of-expression rights as the traditional media has stoked debate about the best way to stamp out online abuses that have caused widespread controversy and alarm.
The ruling by Italy's highest appeal court, the Court of Cassation, was published on Tuesday, and came in response to an appeal by a consumers' association that had seen two of its online forums blocked on the orders of a Sicilian magistrate for allegedly insulting the Catholic religion.
Consumer groups and Internet insiders are divided as to whether the ruling was actually a blessing in disguise for freedom of expression on the Web, since it absolves online forums from the registration and oversight responsibilities required of traditional newspapers.
The consumers' association ADUC (Association for the Rights of Users and Consumers), which specializes in defending the interests of the public in relation to television, Internet and telephone companies, had two of its forum threads placed under sequestration in November 2006 following a complaint from a Sicilian priest. The priest, Fortunato Di Noto, who runs an Internet monitoring service, objected to allegedly offensive comments posted on the ADUC site and succeeded in getting two of the forum threads removed on the orders of a prosecutor in the Sicilian town of Catania.
In its ruling, the Court of Cassation noted that an online forum was "a simple discussion area where any user or registered users are free to express their opinion, but this does not mean that the forum falls under the rules and obligations applying to the press (such as appointing a legally responsible director to register the title) or benefits from the protections from sequestration that the Constitution reserves for the press."
ADUC believes the ruling threatens individual liberty and is considering appealing it to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. "We weren't seeking equal status with the press, but we believe the individual should have the same right to express his opinion as is guaranteed for members of the press," said Pietro Moretti, ADUC's vice president.
Hundreds of comments in the two discussion threads were blocked by police for about a year, together with the nine allegedly offensive comments to which Di Noto had objected, Moretti said in a telephone interview. "On principle we are defending ideas that we don't actually agree with. We are seeking the same minimal free-speech protections that the press enjoys," Moretti said.
"This verdict has a positive and a negative aspect," said Emmanuela Bertucci, one of the lawyers acting for ADUC in the case. "Newspaper editors are penally responsible for a failure of oversight if they publish defamatory statements. By declaring that Internet communications are not comparable to the press, the judges have removed a sword of Damocles that was hanging over our heads. That's a good thing, because it threatened to halt the development of Internet forums," Bertucci said in a telephone interview.