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Italy's own SOPA is coming, and it could be disastrous

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A zealous government board in Italy has granted itself the power of judge, jury, and executioner of any site it deems a copyright violator.

That is, unless one intellectual property lawyer can convince a court to stop it, but the clock is ticking.

Fulvio Sarzana of Rome's Sarzana & Partners Law Firm is the author of a book on Internet commerce, and he's representing a host of activist groups and consumer associations against AGCOM, an Italian acronym for an independent government body called the Communication Authority. In late 2013, AGCOM proposed, then granted to itself, a controversial means of enforcing copyright.

"We are very concerned because this legislation has not been adopted by the Italian parliament, but by an administrative body," Sarzana told the Daily Dot.

The gist of AGCOM's proposed program, according to papers by Giancarlo Frosio, a fellow at Stanford Law's Center for Internet and Society, is that enforcing online copyright would become an administrative issue, rather than a civil or criminal one.

If that sounds like liberalizing a copyright system, think again. Under AGCOM's proposal, anyone accusing a website of violating intellectual property law won't have to go through some court to get it shut down. Accusations are as easy as filling a form on AGCOM's site. The accused site would have five days to file a counterclaim if it wants to go to court to prove its innocence. But if the site is still found guilty, its owner will have to pay the court fees. If it doesn't want to risk that, AGCOM will go ahead and have Italy's Internet service providers block citizens from seeing that page. 

Ring a bell? It's the same principle that was behind the Stop Online Piracy Act of January 2013, the most Internet-infamous U.S. bill in history, which prompted a massive and successful online strike. Sites like the copyright blog Torrentfreak have derided AGCOM's proposal as "Italy's SOPA," a characterization Sarzana thinks is fair.

AGCOM's regulations are scheduled to take effect March 31. Already, as if fired as a warning salvo, Rome's public prosecutor ordered Italian ISPs to block 46 allegedly pirating websites on March 4, the same kind of blocking that the country would see under AGCOM.

To fight it, Lazio has submitted a challenge against AGCOM in the Administrative Court of Lazio on behalf of a group of civil rights organizations. His eventual goal is to get it bumped up to his country's Supreme Court, where he can argue that AGCOM's actions were illegal.

You may wonder why a country would suddenly take such drastic steps to adopt a guilty-until-proven-innocent model for the copyright enforcement. In the case of SOPA, a handful of powerful entertainment lobbying organizations, like Hollywood's Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), were open about their political influence and how they expected a piracy crackdown to boost their profits.

"Lobbying in Europe, and particularly in Italy, is never done openly. There's actually no such thing as lobbying in U.S. terms," Frosio told the Daily Dot. But just because there isn't open, Citizens United-style lobbying in the Boot, however, doesn't mean that the same basic thing doesn't still happen underground.

"There are very strong corporative powers," Frosio said. "They are still a heritage of the old fascist system and they profoundly pervade the Italian society. These corporative powers have their own affiliates or 'representatives' both in the Parliament and administration and play covertly their cards to achieve their agenda."

In other words, Italy is getting its own entertainment industry-sponsored means to easily take down websites that allegedly infringe copyright. It's just SOPA, flavored with Italian seasoning.