Big Brother Berlusconi

Italy's new Internet laws take a turn for the Fascist

29 September 2005

Even at public internet terminals, you have to let it snap a photo of your passport before you can use it.
At public internet terminals in Italy, you have to hold up your passport and let it snap a photo of your vital info before you can log on.
You think Bush had the U.S. press well tamed (Katrina outrage notwithstanding)?

He's got nothing on Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's wily master of corporate greed-turned-Prime Minster.

Berlusconi: The one-man media empire (and thoroughly corrupt Prime Minister)

Back when he got his country's top job, Berlusconi refused calls to divest himself of some his businesses, claming to see no conflict of interest between his companies' holdings and the greater good of serving his country.

No conflict of interest? Before he was P.M., this media mogul was Italy's Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and Disney Corp. all rolled into one.

Italy, you see, has seven main national television channels: the three state-run RAI networks—inventively named, in the great tradition of the BBC, RAI 1, RAI 2, and RAI 3—the three private channels owned by Mediaset—Italia 1, Rete 4, and Canale 5—and tiny little Telemontecarlo, which a few years ago, apparently feeling left out of the number club, re-branded itself as "La 7."

Two guesses as to who owns Mediaset. I'll give you a hint. It's the same man who now, as Prime Minster, has direct control over the three RAI stations as well.

Yep, Silvio Berlusconi personally controls a whopping his 98% share of Italy's national television market.

Did I mention he also happens to own the nation's largest publishing house, and as a sideline publishes several of the country's most widely-circulated daily newspapers?

Well, apparently this near-lock on the flow of information in Italy wasn't enough for old Silvio. I can only imagine him sighing with envy over the kind of control exercised by Kim Jong-il in North Korea. Which is why, this fall, Silvio has set his sights on the last great bastion of information available in Italy: the Internet.

Have your WiFi with a side of government snooping

On September 26, a brand-new Italian law went into effect. They call it Anti-Terrorism Law 155/05—one of those ridiculous "let's show the public we're doing something, at least" legal Band-Aids that won't amount to much more than a massive waste of time and bureaucracy.

The new law requires every Internet cafe, every hotel with a Mac on an ADSL line, and every pub with a PC stuck in the corner to photocopy of the identity card or passport of anyone wishing to use the Internet—so that the government can track everything they do online.

OK. Italy is (understandably) getting a bit jittery about the specter of a terrorist attack. Britain and Spain have both suffered bombings due to their participation in Bush's war, and—all due respect to Poland and the Federated Republic of Micronesia—the next major U.S. ally in the Iraq war is Italy, which has so far gone unscathed (unless you count the attacks on Sharm el Sheik, the Egyptian resort town on the Sinai Peninsula which is a bit like Italy's Cancun).

But this frighteningly Orwellian new law doesn't seem as if it'll be able to do much good in the end, anyway. No one seems to be able to explain satisfactorily just how keeping these kinds of tabs on Web surfing will help them catch the bad guys. All the bad guys have to do is find some bar with a few Internet terminals on unsecured WiFi, loaf around outside to cadge the signal, and use their Palmtops to surf. I've found spots like that in every town so far—and we're talking teensy places, like Sorrento, Anacapri, and Positano. Imagine how many there are in Rome or Milan.

OK. So the law is, in the end, not only useless, it's fundamentally unenforceable. So that means it's merely a big pain in the neck for all us non-terrorists out there—beyond just the issues of violation of privacy, concept of free speech, and other high-falutin' ideals.

Let's say your hotel keeps hold of your passport, as many do (in order to register the information in it later, at their convenience, rather than now, at yours), or you decide to leave it in your hotel or room safe rather than cart it around with you—for safety reasons, or because you are headed to the beach to swim, or whatever. That means you can't just pop into an Internet café whilst you're out and about to check email or dash off an "I'm in Capri, aren't you jealous?" e-mail to friends back home (or, more to the point, update your blog).

There's also been a (totally understandable) knee-jerk reaction amongst the providers of many formerly free WiFi hotspots to yank the plug, as otherwise they have no way of knowing—let alone collecting data on—who might be piggybacking on their signal, and yet they would be held responsible for breaking the law.

As for me, it means it's back to the old hotel room phone line or finding a good, clear cell signal and suffering ultra-slow (and expensive) dial-up when I want to go online with my own laptop.

So here's to Big Brother Berlusconi, doing what he can to keep Italy safe from video poker players, teenage porn downloaders, students researching papers, lovers trading mushy texts, road warriors checking in with the office, tourists booking hotel rooms, and travel writers just trying to do their jobs.

Oh, and on the off-chance that a highly-trained sleeper cell might slip up and decide to pop into an internet café in order to broadcast a mass e-mail detailing its secret plans to blow up the Colosseum, the terrorists as well.

Tips & links

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Book ahead

While for some activities you can just show up, this is one travel item you really should try to reserve in advance.

Popular activities like cooking classes can sell out.

Many are available only on certain days of the week, so it pays to know that you'll have to set aside, say, Tuesday morning for that guided market walk with a local cookbook author.

Many of the best activities are available by advance booking or appointment only—particularly wineries. Some vineyards welcome walk-ins, true, but many more will give you a cellar tour and wine tasting only if you call ahead a few days (and those tend to be the ones most liberal with the free samples).

If you have your heart set on dining in a particular restaurant, go ahead and call ahead,even if it's just earlier on the same day—though a day ahead is preferable. I have found that a corrollary of Muphy's Law applies to this aspect of travel. Any restaurant I am particularly keen on but blithely assume I can just waltz into will inevitably be filled to the brim: no tables available. However, half the time when I do book a table in advance I'll end up being the only guy in the place (nor near enough for my advance booking to feel like overkill). Still, better safe than sorry. Reserving a table is quick and painless; getting turned away at the door can be crushing.

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