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Internet frontier of freedom

Internet frontier of freedom

Rome – The history of the law on assisted fertilization, criticized even by those who approved it, is repeated with the Urbani decree on computer piracy. Minister Urbani, in fact, asked on May 18 to approve a small legislative monster that criminalizes the habitual behavior of millions of Italians by announcing that “the legislator will intervene to correct any errors, both known and future”. The fact that a Minister invites to approve, without any well-founded urgency reasons, measures that are considered “known errors” plunges the Italian Parliament into tragicomedy again.

The need to vote on a text that the presenters themselves consider flawed by errors can only be explained by a pre-electoral haste imposed by external actors (the Vatican in the case of assisted fertilization, the film groups in the case of the Urbani decree) to which a majority MP, once again transversal, wanted to obey.

The “Urbani decree” is just the last straw of an illiberal trickle that is characterizing the Italian, European and American legislation on new technologies, whether they relate to the Internet or refer to software.

After the agreement reached with Washington on May 17th by the European Commission on the transfer of passenger data to the USA, on the 18th the Ministers of the European Union approved the patentability of the software. On both measures, the European Parliament had expressed itself in the opposite direction with a painful vote that came out of months of debate. It is not surprising that the Commission and the Council have chosen a moment of parliamentary “void” to take decisions that clash head-on with the will of the only directly elected European institution. In Brussels as in Rome they wanted to force their hand in the name of interests other than those of the citizens.

The technological progress of the last fifteen years has produced the highest number of innovations in the history of mankind in the shortest period of time. The legislator, instead of limiting himself to the definition of a few general rules, has tried to chase the pace of innovation by opposing a conservative and protectionist vision – systematically prohibitionist – to the possibilities offered by the creativity of researchers and programmers. This behavior is the result, on the one hand, of pressure from those who argue that copyright and reproduction rights are at risk, or the possibility of patenting inventions, and on the other hand, from those – such as the large multinationals of entertainment and software – fears the economic damage of part of the profits deriving from “traditional” production models.

Beyond the fears of some of the stakeholders, the possibility of exchanging contents through the Net, the possibility of “collective” writing of programs, represent novelties to be enhanced and encouraged. Some suggestions already exist and come from the innovators themselves, it would be enough to think of the proposals of the founder of the Free Software movement Richard Stallman, the General Public License, intended to guarantee the freedom to share and modify free software in order to ensure that programs are free for all their users, and its more commercial derivatives.

For centuries, land ownership has been thought to extend from the center of the earth to infinite space. The discovery of archaeological finds on the one hand and the invention of new means of transport on the other have changed the extent of those property rights. The internet poses the same kind of necessary overhaul.

Regulation – or, more often, deregulation – can certainly entail in terms of profit some initial sacrifices for some, from the temporal restriction of the validity of copyright to the non-patentability of software program functions, but today’s sacrifice must be written in a process of changes that will increasingly affect the forms – and probably also the contents – of human communication and the “being together” of hundreds of millions of people. Already today there are communities that, in particular on issues relating to the Net or to software, have evolved to become real political pressure groups. However, if in democratic countries excessive limitations can be corrected through legislative reforms or court rulings, in authoritarian countries they only increase repressive arsenals which are already very powerful in themselves.

The emergence of technological innovations, or the possibility of scientific development, cannot always and only clash with prohibition or protection as the only measures of government. Let’s think about what would have happened if the “Urbani decree” had been in force when Stallman or Linus Torvalds began to develop alternative operating systems to the existing ones and to spread the first free and open software programs. The postal police on duty should have arrested them. The movement of free software (which does not necessarily mean free), which is based precisely on “Peer to Peer” systems to spread, develop and improve “open source” programs, would never have been born or would have developed illegally.

Computer piracy is not fought by condemning Internet users to prison or by putting a carabiniere in front of every computer, but by revising the concept of copyright and digital property. The thinkers of Free Software have a lot to teach us: to replace “copyright” with “copyleft”, with which the author himself defines the field of intellectual property to favor the diffusion of his work; limit the duration of copyright; to favor innovations and not the patenting of ideas; introduce an Internet subscription fee that covers copyrights, as happens with the television license fee. These are some of the ideas circulating on the Net. Among the new necessary rules are those that must affirm the right of access to digital content for people with disabilities.

The political outlook is certainly not the best. The prohibition imposed on scientific research and drugs today finds an equally strong and transversal counterpart in the prohibition on the Net. While the Italian party consociation is increasingly characterizing itself as the sole conservation party, the only possibility of overturning the current approach it lies in the growth, even organized (which does not have to mean, as often happens, parastatal and subsidized) of the most widespread stakeholders, such as those of Internet users.

Marco Cappato
Radical MEP “Emma Bonino List”