Italian court: Online editors not responsible for reader comments

The ruling contrasts with recent legal developments in Italy that have tended to curtail freedom of the Internet

Online commentators Wednesday welcomed a ruling by Italy's highest court that the editors of online publications cannot be held legally responsible for defamatory comments posted by their readers.

In a ruling handed down at the end of October, the Court of Cassation acquitted a former online editor of L'Espresso news magazine of the crime of failing to prevent defamation committed by one of her readers.

The court overturned the verdicts of two lower courts in Bologna, which had convicted L'Espresso's former online editor Daniela Hamaui for failing to remove the defamatory comment.

The judges said online publications could not be treated in the same way as traditional print media and could not be expected to exercise preventative editorial control over readers' comments.

Traditional print media, as defined in Italian law, involved the reproduction of an original text on a physical medium that was then distributed to the public, the court said. Internet publications were not physically distributed to the public, even though it was theoretically possible for an online text to be printed out and then physically distributed by a third party.

It was not legally correct to apply sanctions intended for traditional print editors who failed to prevent the publication of a libel to an online editor who failed to remove defamatory material after it was posted by a reader, the court said.

Hamaui was acquitted by the court because failure to prevent a defamation was "not foreseen by the law as a crime."

Marco Pratellesi, blogging on the www.vanityfair.it website, introduced his report on the ruling with the words: "Here's the good news," and other commentators dubbed it an "historic" decision.

The liberalizing effect of the court ruling contrasts with previous legal developments that have tended to curtail the freedom of the Internet in Italy.

In February 2010 three Google executives were sentenced to six-month suspended prison sentences for allowing a video showing the bullying of a handicapped child to be posted on the Google Video site.

And in September activists protested in Rome against a draft law that would have forced online publications to publish corrections within 48 hours or risk a 12,000 Euros (US$16,000) fine. The law was subsequently modified by parliament, but several commentators accused former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of trying to introduce a restrictive Internet regime in Italy to protect his political and business interests.

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