Law requires Italian Internet cafes to record ID
Friday, December 9, 2005; Posted: 3:53 p.m. EST (20:53 GMT)
ROME, Italy (AP) -- In a heavily immigrant neighborhood near the main railway station, Ahmed Sohel points dejectedly to the empty computer terminals at the modest storefront where he sells Internet and telephone service.
"Before, I was full of Internet clients, now I have no one left," said Sohel, a gentle, middle-aged immigrant from Bangladesh.
A new Italian law requires businesses that offer Internet access to the public, like Sohel's, to ask clients for identification and log the owner's name and the document type.
Internet cafes also must make and keep a photocopy of the ID and be registered with their local police station, dictates the law, part of an anti-terror package approved after the July terrorist bombings in London.
Many cafe owners say the law has increased their work load and decreased their profits.
"We're selling the store, and in part this is the reason," said Dolores Cabrera, who owns Kokonet, an Internet storefront across town near the Vatican. About half Cabrera's prospective clients either don't have their passport with them or aren't willing to show it, she said.
Enforcement is spotty at many cafes, however, and besides Internet cafe owners and civil libertarians, the law appears to bother only people who fear scrutiny by the authorities, such as illegal immigrants.
Angela De Angelis, a 21-year-old Italian student using an Internet cafe near the Vatican, was dubious about the new law's worth.
"I think it's all right if it serves to protect us, though sincerely, I can't see how it's useful," she said.
Italy is the only European Union country to require Internet cafes to record ID information on clients, said Richard Nash, secretary general of EuroISPA, which represents Internet providers in Europe.
Non-member Switzerland, however, does requires people who go online at Internet cafes to show IDs, according to Robin Gross, of the U.S. civil liberties group IP Justice.
Several Asian countries and cities, most prominently China and including the Indian technology hub of Bangalore, require registration at cafes.
But the leaders of some of those nations tend to be thinking at least as much about inhibiting speech as preventing terror attacks in making the requirement. In Vietnam, Internet cafes also are required to block access to Web sites deemed subversive and pornographic.
The Internet's potential as a terrorist tool was highlighted by the 2002 kidnapping and murder in Pakistan of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, whose abductors used e-mail to issue demands and send photos. However, those messages were traced to a computer in a private residence, not an Internet cafe. Pakistan does not require cafe users to register.
Daniele Capezzone, a leader of Italy's Radical Party that often campaigns on human and civil rights issues, opposes the new law and explains why he thinks it has stirred little debate.
"Two reasons: one, the political class isn't talking about it, and two, the media hasn't shined a light on it," he said.
Internet cafe owners who rely in large part on a clientele that may not be in the country legally are often opting to turn a blind eye.
"Fifty percent of the people who come for Internet don't want to show their document," Sohel said, opening his registry book and pointing to where a few clients among those who used the computers left their names but not their passport numbers. As for successfully photocopying IDs, he said customer compliance is rare.
Giuseppe Italia, whose office at Rome's central police station oversees the application of the new law in the province of Rome, acknowledges that Internet cafes that cater to immigrants might not be complying consistently.
Sabino Acquaviva, a sociologist at the University of Padua who specializes in terrorism, says compliance is indeed haphazard.
"People either won't register their documents, and others will show fake ones," he said. "I think this law is useless."
An added problem is that police cannot sanction violators -- license suspension or revocation are among the stipulated penalties -- unless they have approved a cafe owner's license, Italia said.
As of mid-November, only about 130 Internet cafe operators in the province of Rome had been approved and one rejected by police with more than 950 still pending.
Italia did not return a call seeking updated information this week, but the Internet magazine Punto Informatico reported on its Web site that seven Internet parlors in Florence were temporarily closed last month for not complying with the law and at least one was shuttered indefinitely for not recording clients' names and failing to register with police.
Some owners bemoan another requirement of the new law: They must be able, if necessary, to track the sites visited by their clients. And some bellyache about the added expense. Contents of people's e-mail is, however, supposed to remain private and can only be made available to law enforcement through a court order.
Italy also obliges telecommunications companies to keep traffic data and European ministers agreed last week to require the carriers to retain records of calls and e-mails for a maximum of two years. The European Parliament's two largest groups endorsed the data retention initiative on Wednesday despite complaints from privacy advocates and telecoms, and the full body is expected to adopt a bill next week.
Back at the cafes, there isn't much confidence among workers that such measures could help prevent a terror attack.
"These people caused the Twin Towers to collapse," said Edoardo Righi, a computer tech at a store near the tourist-rich neighborhood of Campo dei Fiori. "They're not going to stop because they can't send an e-mail."
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