The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed concern over draft Italian cyber bullying legislation that would allow purported victims to secure the removal of offensive content without judicial oversight.

Under the bill, passed by the Chamber of Deputies last month, online service providers – including web sites, social media networks and instant messaging platforms – would be required to remove content reported as cyber bullying within 24 hours or face the possibility of stiff financial penalties from Italy’s data protection authority.

The draft legislation defines “cyber bullying” in broad terms. In addition to targeting threats, incitement to self-harm, blackmail and “aggression or repeated harassment” intended to cause “anxiety, fear, isolation or marginalisation”, the definition includes “insults or ridicule” related to a person’s race, language, religion, sexual orientation, political opinion, physical appearance or personal and social situation.

Also subject to removal are any forms of digital media “detrimental to the honour, dignity and reputation of the victim”.

The Italian Senate unanimously passed a previous version of the measure in May. That version, however, was exclusively aimed at protecting victims of cyber harassment under the age of 14.

In its final working day in July before the summer holidays, the Chamber of Deputies introduced sweeping changes to the bill, most prominently a provision granting any person, not just minors, the right to demand content removal. But the Chamber also vastly expanded the scope of potentially offensive content and shortened the required response time by Internet service providers, in addition to introducing tougher criminal penalties for online stalking.

IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen said the Chamber of Deputies appeared to have overshot its stated attempt of combating cyber bullying.

“Given the vast numbers of journalists subjected to campaigns of vicious online abuse, we’re sympathetic to efforts aiming to protect Internet users, from harassment,” he commented. “But unfortunately, this bill, which began as a focused and commendable effort to protect children, now acts as an invitation for adults to suppress unwanted speech. The notion that any person can compel the removal of such a broad range of subjectively offensive content – which could easily be an acerbic blog post, a sarcastic WhatsApp message or a strongly worded piece of online commentary – without proper judicial oversight is a dangerous proposition.”

Griffen added: “In messily conflating various issues – cyber bullying, hate speech and defamation in particular – the Chamber’s amendments have produced a draft law that is in serious breach of international standards and best practices in the regulation of freedom of expression online. The bill’s expansive concept of ‘insult’ and its references to honour and reputation offer a back door to suppressing unwanted or inconvenient content alleged to be defamatory.”

He noted that the 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Internet states that ISPs and other online intermediaries “should not be subject to extrajudicial content takedown rules which fail to provide sufficient protection for freedom of expression”.

“The Chamber’s version of the bill clearly provides no such sufficient protection for freedom of expression, a term that isn’t even mentioned in the text,” Griffen observed. “As a consequence of the increased liability on them, which ignores self-regulatory policies that many platforms have already adopted, ISPs will be encouraged to censor content that would otherwise be protected in a court of law.”

Griffen said IPI urged the Senate, which must now approve the Chamber’s changes, to “reject the bill in its current form and replace it with a tailored and proportionate response to the phenomenon of cyber bullying”.

Broad range of criticism

Critics have accused the Chamber, which approved the bill on Sept. 20 by a vote of 242-73, with 48 abstentions, of deliberately distorting a measure intended to protect the privacy and well-being of children online.

“The government has taken advantage of the law on cyber bullying to attack freedom on the web,” MP Vittorio Ferraresi, whose opposition Five Star Movement largely voted against the bill, told the free expression group Ossigeno Informazione in a statement later provided to IPI.

Fulvio Sarzana, an Italian attorney and member of a group of lawyers and academics that unsuccessfully sought to counter the Chamber’s amendments, echoed that view.

“Parliament is trying to pass this bill in order to have an instrument to prevent criticism,” he told IPI in a telephone interview.

Backers of the Senate’s original measure – including the Senator who introduced it, Elena Ferrara, as well as groups such as Save the Children Italy – have expressed concern at the vastly increased scope and suggested the changes would dilute the fight against child cyber bullying.

The debate in Italy comes as lawmakers in other EU countries have sought to balance the need to combat cyber abuse with considerations for free expression. Recent proposals in Sweden and Austria, for instance, have included provisions strengthening criminal defamation laws, despite international calls to remove defamation from criminal law.

Observers suggest the Italian Senate is unlikely to attempt to amend the bill again; if it does not, it will have to decide to either pass it in its current form or let it expire. A date for a vote has not yet been officially announced.