The Italian Crackdown

by Gomma, Decoder

This is the first time since the 60's that a young counterculture has moved this close to the requests of society in general, from the world of work and from the production of the meaning. In the 70's and 80's the counterculture was separated from the civil society by its own needs, but this has brought ghetto-ization. In the 90's it is mutated radically. And it assists a great creative phase united with the desire for a transformation of the existing circumstances. Modern times and the dynamics of production have created a new frontier, a new place where we could give life to a part of our dreams: the electronic frontier.

But in this new territory the law, when it exists, isn't very clear and often only the strongest survives. Like then, deviance and crime seem to be necessary in a paradoxical situation where the largest potential amount of access to the means of information in reality corresponds to a great lack in the sharing of communication. The breaking of the hypothetical rules of cyberspace was used like a symbolic element to demonstrate that we will not have to support the rules imposed by the media for all of our lives.

We believe, actually the most interesting side of this problem is what these creative crimes, or the creative usage of the new media put into the sphere of civil rights.

In these sense I'd like to recount some events that happened in Italy after the approval of the European Community's law on the duplication of software and computer crimes in general, facts that demonstrate that this law doesn't protect the interests of the citizens, but only those of the corporations. Keep in mind that this juridical monster stated that if you have in your PC a copied software you are under the criminal law.

The Italian corner of the electronic frontier has its own characteristic features.

Internet access is rare, so Italians tend to rely on smaller networks, such as Fidonet and a number of exclusively Italian networks for the sharing of information. The Italian territory also has a rhythm of its own. The main Italian networks, CyberNet, PeaceLink, P-net, do not bristle with the same high octane flame wars one finds on American bulletin boards, nor do they boast the same frenetic swapping of technical information and programs. Much more prominent are exchanges of information on topics like antifascism, and anti-mafia, the latest assaults by neo-fascists on African workers, the latest on AIDS research, and the shifting political currents in the ex-Yugoslavia. Even the non-militant boards gravitate to discussions of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zones, the latest from the keyboards of Bruce Sterling and Howard Rheingold, raves, computer art and problems related to the freedom of communications. It is, as a rule, a much more mellow territory.

That mellow atmosphere was punctuated violently on May 11th, 1994, when the Guardia di Finanza (Italy's "financial police") was unleashed in a massive operation codenamed "hardware1" immediately renamed the "Italian Crackdown" by the network community. Acting after a warrant issued by a Prosecutor in Pesaro, more than 100 Bulletin Board Systems throughout the country were visited and searched by police officials. Dozens of people were formally accused of "distribution of illegally copied software and appropriation of secret passwords". The charges are very grave: conspiracy, receiving of stolen goods, violation of data banks, duplication, and the possession of systems made for duplication (that is any computer that has a disk drive). So, crimes that, in the worst instance can put you in jail for 12 years only for having at home copied programs, paradoxically even if they're only for personal use. At the moment there are 122 arrest warrants for these crimes. The raids hit also private houses and belongings, and in some places sleeping people were abruptly woken up facing machine guns. The searches have been intense. The police searched everywhere, controlling under the beds, behind the wardrobes, looking through books page by page, trying to find the hidden disks. One bedroom was closed for two days because it held too much suspected material. In several cases police officials didn't know what to search for, so they seized computers, floppy disks, modems along with electrical outlets, answering machines, audiotapes, personal effects.

This is the official list of the confiscated stuff:

Moving after a suspected software piracy ring run by people involved in a Fidonet node, the crackdown started in the night between May 10 and 11 in Milano, targeting in the two following days BBSs in Pesaro, Modena, Bologna, Ancona, Pisa and other cities.

Fidonet Italia, member of the worldwide Fidonet network, is a non-profit organization devoted to distribution of shareware and freeware software as well as to electronic forums on topics ranging from technological to social issues.

At the moment, the raids seems to be motivated by accusations against two people involved in a Pesaro-based BBS who were using Fidonet contacts to allegedly distribute illegal copies of computer programs.

The prosecutor acted simply on the basis of the Fidonet telephone numbers list (publicly available) owned by the suspected. Pratically the investigators followed the street of the electronic mail inside Fidonet, to extend the operation to the other networks existing in Italy. The vast majority of the people searched don't have any kind of relationship with the two people first under investigation.

Particularly, the seizures of floppy disks and personal computers are completely unmotivated, because every BBS is a completely independent structure and each sysop is running his/her own hardware and software.

Because police officials seized also electronic and paper archives containing data, numbers and personal electronic mail of the people who logged onto Fidonet nodes, it is evident that investigations are going even further - thus violating the constitutional right to privacy. In fact in this law there are no rules to protect personal privacy in the electronic medium.

During the operation w-the sysop was considered the only responsible person about anything happened onto and around his/her own BBS, when the structure of a BBS makes impossible any objective responsibility for all the data or information that passes through it.

The first results of this crackdown are that many Fidonet operators decided to shut down immediately their systems all over the country, fearing heavier police intrusions in both their public activities and private lives. Furthermore its considered that every BBS has round 300 users, therefore means that the operation has taken 30.000 people that used telematic services, taking their right to have access to information.

But the Italian operation wasn't finished!

As remaining networks scrambled to get the word out, one of the leading players was the PeaceLink network with its central node in Taranto. PeaceLink was a non-profit network of bulletin boards established almost exclusively for the exchange of information about anti-mafia and antifascist work, and had been one of few reliable lines of communication with the peoples of ex-Yugoslavia.

With its long tradition of left-leaning activism, it quite naturally took up the charge exchanging information and helping in the organization of meetings on the crackdown which were to be held in Rome and Pesaro at the end of June. On May 23 a Peacelink user distributed an electronic update on the crackdown, announcing, among other things, that "PeaceLink has set up a defense committee news center in Taranto."

On June 3, three weeks after the initial wave of crackdowns, the financial police raided the Taranto node of PeaceLink, confiscated its equipment and files - effectively silencing the network.

Clearly, Italy had had a huge problem with piracy. Piracy of records, videotapes, and even books has been widespread. Although perhaps not the largest piracy problem in Italy, software piracy was nevertheless significant. But a caveat is necessary here. Italy earned its reputation not from pirated software that was distributed through bulletin boards, but rather by software piracy that was encouraged by Italy's largest corporations. For example, in 1989 one raid at the headquarters of the Montedison industrial group discovered that 90% of the Lotus and Ashton-Tate software found on workstations were allegedly unauthorized copies. In the words of a senior analyst in a well-known consulting firm, "In-house software piracy isn't always just a widespread random activity in some Italian firms. It's often a systematic institutionalized procedure. In some cases software manuals were copied, neatly bound, and turned out with the company logo on the cover".

Some observers have held that in an environment with such widespread piracy, it is natural to suppose that pirate boards would be widespread. However one can also make the case that just the opposite is true. The widespread institutionalized piracy in Italy may have made underground pirate bulletin boards unnecessary.

Of course if piracy is defined broadly enough -- for example as being in possession at least one piece of unregistered software, most of the affected boards would probably fall under the definition. (For that matter, most people here at this moment would count as pirates.) Some of the boards were running unregistered BBS software. No doubt others had illegally copied programs here and there which had been uploaded. But of course when we think of pirate boards we think of boards established with the exchange of warez as its primary purpose, and here it seems that the "haul" from the crackdown was embarrassingly small, and this is difficult to understand. It would have been a simple matter to log onto these systems and check for piracy first, or at least find an informant who had spotted pirated materials. Even in the notoriously clumsy Operation Sundevil, all the boards had been examined beforehand (if only by informants). Yet there is no evidence that even these basic steps were taken in Italy.

Rather there appears to have been a widespread seizing of BBSs without any evidence that they carried pirated software.

Perhaps the Italian government was working on behalf of corporate interests to push out the smaller BBS's with the goal of making room for the larger corporations to establish interests on the electronic frontier. Who would these interests be? One candidate would surely be Silvio Berlusconi himself, the Italian Prime Minister and the leading media mogul of Italy. According to trade magazines like "Advertising Age", Berlusconi's Fininvest corporation controls 40% of the Italian television audience, 33% of all periodical circulation, 18% of the book publishing market, and 16% of the newspaper circulation. More importantly, Berlusconi's corporation controls 60% of the TV advertising revenue, and 40% of all advertising revenues total in Italy!

Besides Berlusconi is now trying to enter the electronic frontier using the new compression algorithms for video-images that can be carried by telephone lines. Surely he must have seen a threat on the horizon to his near media monopoly.

But Berlusconi is not the only responsible in this scenario, of course. There are numerous corporate interests which may be primed to move into the electronic frontier, and cozy relationships between large corporations and the Italian government remain widespread.

The situation allowed the lobbyists created by the corporations themselves to act freely and undisturbed. In the programming field, the main lobby is SPA, and BSA is its flying squad. Its aim is not only to prepare and condition the public opinion, and to influence heavily the legislative and judicial powers and the governments, using "unfair" forms to act legally against their enemies. The most resounding case, recorded in Italy, has been a campaign with an invitation to become an "almost-anonymous informer" on software copiers printed on the largest Italian newspapers. They published a form of coupon to be signed with people's or company's names that have copied or used copied software. Using this kind of pressure, SPA and BSA obtained in America the model of the legislation on "software protection" later adopted like a monkey by the whole European Community.

Furthermore the BSA directed a press campaign six months before the police operation on the dangers constituted by the hackers and the role of the BBS in spreading the copied software. This campaign was supported by all the main italian informatic magazines.

It is now evident that there are other dynamics pushing an operation like this: the first is to rule the electronic frontier in an authoritarian manner. But let's take a look at the nature of cyberspace, the place in which the progressive pervasiveness of technology and its connections have created and will create more and more behaviours on the limits of the law. These behaviours don't involve necessarily a criminal will by the people who commit them, but they are determined by the nature itself of the medium and the daily ways of accessing it.

The new situation created by information technology consists of the fact that the information is totally digitizable and easily conserved and transmitted. Besides, its use is plastic and multimedial. The approach given by the new international laws was, on the contrary, based on rules of a Gutenbergian concept. We observed that they enormously limit the possibility of the use of the information even if this possibility is intrinsic to the digital media.

This scene is furthermore complicated by the fact that the behaviour the law intends to attack is widespread on a mass level.

So a repressive law can only create negative results considering their high social costs. Our proposal is to re-consider the problem of the "informatic emergency", opposing to it a philosophy of "electronic democracy". If it is necessary to have a law, this has to guarantee the rights of the citizens and not punish them heavily in the courts. This coup help to move the problem from the law-courts to more appropriate seats, public spaces in which could be possible to collect the opinions and the ideas of the inhabitants of the electronic frontier.

But coming back to the problem of copying and in general of the intellectual property, we think have to fight to affirm the right to copy for individual usage, to stress the social use, and the exchange of information without any kind of frontier or limit. We demand the decriminalization of copying and to rouse an exchange in the process of the construction of the information between free an equal subjects. In the same time, we want to facilitate and protect shareware programmers that had their products stolen and patented by big companies.

The right to copy allows us to realize strategies of psychic survival against the society of the spectacle and concretely affirms that the right to information is an ontological right of the social human being in this era.