Italy debates fines and prison terms for people who spread fake news

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Italy debates fines and prison terms for people who spread fake news
US President Donald Trump has accused various media platforms of being 'fake news', while denying claims that fake news helped influence the 2016 election. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP

A bill presented in Italy's Senate on Wednesday proposed introducing fines and prison sentences for those behind fake news reports or hate campaigns - but the text has been widely criticized by lawyers and digital experts.


"There have always been 'fake news' or hoaxes, but they have never been spread at the rate we see today," the text noted. "Because of this, it is no longer possible to put off the debate" on how to tackle the problem.

The first article of the bill proposes a fine of up to €5,000 for anyone who publishes or spreads "false, exaggerated or biased" news reports and does not remove them within 24 hours of being notified. 

Only online news organizations, not print media, would be subject to the fines, and those responsible for misinformation would face an additional year's imprisonment if the fake news could "cause alarm to the public" or "damage the public interest".

Meanwhile, if the reports were classed as "hate campaigns against individuals" or fake news "aimed at undermining the democratic process", perpetrators would face at least two years' imprisonment and a fine of up to €10,000 if the bill became law.

Netiquette and media literacy

The fake news bill was put forward by MP Adele Gambaro, a former member of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party. She now belongs to the Liberal Popular Alliance after being expelled from the Movement after criticizing leader Beppe Grillo, but the fake news bill is a bipartisan effort.

In the bill, Gambaro notes that a kind of "netiquette" is essential for dealing with the challenges presented by technological developments. 

Five Star Movement sidesteps claims of pro-Russia fake news

Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo, who has called for 'public juries' to judge whether news is genuine. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

"The internet has certainly expanded the boundaries of our freedom by giving us the opportunity to express ourselves on a global scale," she says. "But freedom of expression can not turn into a synonym for lack of control where control, in the information era, means correct news, for the protection of users."

In addition to the punishments for those responsible for fake news, the bill would also obligate anyone opening a blog, website or discussion forum to seek official approval and submit personal information including their name, address and tax code to authorities.

Schools would also have a duty to teach students about "media literacy" and "citizen journalism" in order to protect them from biased or misleading reports and avoid falling for hoaxes.

"I do not want to put a gag on the web," said Gambaro, who also admitted she was aware of the challenges inherent in monitoring online activity and judging whether reports were false or biased. "This text is a first step. We know it's an enormous task, but we want to try, and we are open to debate."

Significant problems

However, the bill has already come up against fierce criticism.

Lawyer Carlo Piana, who specializes in digital technology and software law, told The Local he had "no doubt" that the bill would be rejected.

"In the past, similar attempts have been made, but there has been huge opposition from most people in their right minds," he said.

He detailed several problems in the bill in its current form, including "violation of constitutional and European standards, the inability to enforce it, and absurd obligations imposed on blogs and communication platforms."

Another Italian lawyer, Ernesto Belisario, who runs a blog on technology law, told The Local that the requirement for people to register with authorities before opening a blog or discussion forum would "restrict freedom of expression" and labelled the bill "dangerous".

"There's a risk that the fear of litigation would act as a disincentive to sharing one's opinion online," he said.

Most significantly, the bill in its current form lacks a clear definition of fake news. "Why is the print media exempt? Must the reports be knowingly false? Who decides if reports are unfounded or false? [...] The second article refers to reports which are 'likely to harm the public interest', but who defines the public interest?" asked Piana.

"Laws against people spreading false information in Italy already exist in Italy - they just need to be applied properly," said Belisario. The bill overlaps with existing protections under slander, defamation and cyberbullying laws, while one article which requires those responsible for information platforms to "constantly monitor" content goes against a European directive prohibiting member states to impose such a duty.

Piana criticized the signatories of the bill, saying "they'd be kicked out of any university with a course in law. But unfortunately, they're in parliament."

The lawyer said he had already shared his views on the bill with its proposer. "I told her what I thought, in quite a strong tweet. But she blocked me. For goodness' sake."

Global debate over fake news

Similar measures to monitor fake news have already been proposed in Germany, something Gambaro pointed out.

Some German conservative groups have called for the spread of fake news to be made a pubishable offence, and Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has warned about the effect of fake news on politics and opinions, saying last month that the country must "confront this phenomenon and if necessary, regulate it."

Merkel: public 'manipulated' by fake news and trolls
Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to the German parliament. Photo: DPA

The discussion of fake news comes amid concerns in the United States that false information and hackers influenced the election and ultimate victory of Donald Trump. Top US Republican leaders on Monday called for an investigation into possible Russian cyberattacks after it was reported that the CIA believed Russia had interfered in the presidential election to help Trump win.

In Germany, there are fears that fake news could similarly influence its general elections in September, while in Italy - which will also hold elections before next spring - the topic has also become a key talking point.

'Enough of the hoaxes'

In November last year, a BuzzFeed investigation revealed links between the Five Star Movement Party, which is currently leading in opinion polls, and a network of pro-Russia fake news sites.

Leader Beppe Grillo responded by labelling the investigation 'fake news', and earlier this year said that public juries should be tasked with deciding whether news articles were genuine or not.

While the bill debated yesterday is the first piece of proposed legislation to tackle fake news in Italy, earlier this month the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, launched a bipartisan appeal against fake news and hoaxes. Boldrini, who has spoken about the high volume of violent threats she receives via social media, told Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in an open letter that there was "too much hate" on the site.

In her 'Basta Bufala' (Enough hoaxes) petition - which has already received thousands of signatures - Boldrini called on schools, media organizations and social media networks to take responsibility in stopping the spread of "unscrupulous fake reporting".

Fake news, the politician wrote, "spreads fear and hatred and irreparably poisons public discourse. It is not just some sort of innocent prank. It can do real harm to real people – just take a look at the bogus reporting on childhood vaccines, or at the proliferation of fake medicines hoaxes, or at online scams."




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