MILAN: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy has put himself front and center in a debate over whether to place controls on the Internet that go well beyond those that exist in most of the rest of the world.
Berlusconi’s governing coalition has backed a law in the Italian Parliament that would force Internet service providers to block access to Web sites with potentially objectionable content.
The law, approved last month by the Italian Senate, would give the ISPs 24 hours to block access to the content or face a fine of as much as ¤250,000, or $316,500.
The measure, which must still be approved by the lower house of Parliament, is one of several steps taken to restrict Internet freedom in Italy. It is being considered as five Google employees face trial in Milan on charges that they violated privacy laws with a video posted on the company’s Italian-language video site.
Last month, the Interior Ministry said it was studying ways to listen to conversations on Skype, and the government has also tried harder than most to close peer-to-peer Web sites that are used to exchange movies and music.
Critics are already lining up against the coalition’s proposal.
‘‘Australia has taken a step to filter the Internet, France a different step, Ireland another and even the United States another, but what is worrying is that Italy is adding them all together, and that leads to a very restrictive environment,’’ said Stefano Quintarelli, an Italian Internet pioneer who co-founded the service provider I.NET and who blogs on technology issues in English and Italian.
‘‘This situation exists in Italy because it is an old country,’’ Quintarelli added. ‘‘Parliament is filled with old people who are making the decisions. Young Italians use the Internet and technology more than the European average, but the older generations are way behind and they are afraid of technology.’’
The law was proposed in response to discussion groups on Facebook that praised two high-level Mafia members — Salvatore Riina, the so-called boss of bosses, known as Totò, and Bernardo Provenzano — who have been convicted of multiple murders and are serving life sentences.
Berlusconi, who said during the election campaign last year that he did not use e-mail or the Internet, has said he wants to use his role as host of a meeting in July of the Group of 8 industrialized nations to discuss ways to regulate the Internet.
The Google trial, which began last month and was scheduled to reconvene March 17, centers on a video that shows several youths tormenting a classmate with Down syndrome. The video was online for about two months before somebody alerted Google, which took it down within a few hours.
At issue is whether Google should be considered an Internet service provider, and thus not liable under current law for content, or whether it is a content provider with responsibility for what is published on its Web site. A service provider is liable only if it does not remove illegal content from its network and servers once notified of its existence.
‘‘It’s akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post,’’ Google said in a statement last month when the trial began. ‘‘What’s more, seeking to hold neutral platforms liable for content posted on them is a direct attack on a free, open Internet.’’
With Italy’s slow legal system, the Google trial could drag on for more than a year.
Deciding what can and cannot be transmitted in cyberspace and determining who is responsible has been a thorny issue for governments around the world. Most have undertaken piecemeal regulation that uses existing laws to punish crimes committed over the Internet.
‘‘The best option is to let people say and do whatever they want on the Internet and then punish those who overstep and break the law, just like what happens offline,’’ said Giorgio Simonelli, a professor at the Catholic University in Milan who follows the media.
‘‘The problem with that policy is that you run the risk of judges being snowed in with so many cases that you need a judicial system dedicated to dealing with just Internet issues,’’ Simonelli said. ‘‘But if you try to block content preventively, you limit freedom of expression, and it is an important attribute that any free society must have.’’
In Italy, any court case or legislation that deals with regulating the media or the Internet takes on an added dimension because Berlusconi has indirect control over more than 90 percent of the television market. His family holding company, Fininvest, holds 36 percent of Mediaset, which owns the three most-watched private television channels in Italy.
The prime minister’s political position also gives him a say over the three RAI public television channels because his political allies name a majority on the company’s board.
‘‘Old forms of media had and still have internal controls from above,’’ Simonelli said. ‘‘In TV you can’t just say whatever you want: There is somebody controlling everything. The novelty of the new media like Internet is that this doesn’t exist. There is total freedom, and that creates anarchy.’’