COVID-19: the Italian Communication Authority to put users’ control duties on platforms and not on ISP

The non-news is spreading in Italy that a report by TGR Leonardo (a National Broadcasting News programme aimed at divulgation of science) in 2015 exposed the creation, in a Sino-American project, of a COVID extracted from a bat and able to infect humans directly.

Although the video is original and the information herein is correct, the effect of its “exhumation” from the Italian Broadcasting Service (RAI) archives has caused a tide of irrational reactions. From global-plot alarms to more timid no-comment link (obviously, to be able to “self-defend” in case the video was altered or fake.

Yet, at a time when “fact-checking” is a cliché surpassed only by the “defense of privacy”, before sharing the video it would have been necessary to verify that the service (as Il Fatto Quotidiano explains) referred to a 2015 study, and that the new COVID-19 is of totally natural origin. This check would have made the re-publication of the journalistic service useless, as Nature herself points out with an addition to the article that says

Editors’ note, March 2020: We are aware that this story is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus was causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus. (We know that our article is used as the basis for unverified theories…)

The point is that in technical matters, not only scientific ones but also legal ones, it should be mandatory by law to respect the warning ne supra crepidam, sutor (cobbler, stick to the shoe) that Apelle di Kos addressed to the shoemaker who, after explaining to him what a shoe looked like, demanded to put his mouth on the whole statue. And since we are talking of the matter, the principle stated in the Psalms, Timor domini principium sapientiae, should also be imposed by law to make it compulsory to connect the brain before opening the mouth.

Waiting for these two rules that never come, and in a moment when fundamental rights (except for the untouchable “privacy”) can be freely compressed by anyone, the 129-20 CONS resolution of the AGCOM (the Italian Communications Authority) took care of the issue and imposed that

1. Audiovisual and radio media service providers are invited to ensure adequate and comprehensive information coverage on the subject of “coronavirus covid-19”, making every effort to ensure the testimony of authoritative experts from the world of science and medicine to provide citizens with verified and well-founded information.

On the one hand, it is undoubtedly to praise that eventually, the Authority distinguishes the role and responsibilities of the platforms (Google, Facebook, etc.) from those of the Internet Service Providers. Hopefully, this deliberation is a strong precedent for the upcoming copyright and streaming regulations.

On the other hand, it is incomprehensible to impose on the  professional media an “invitation” (a legal concept just as non-existent as the “recommendations” of the Council Presidency’s Prime Ministerial COVID Decrees) to strive to provide correct information. One may wonders: could they do something different? Without this deliberation, would they be free to share any unverified claim?

It is, instead, severe and dangerous the overruling of the general prohibition of surveillance of users established by Directive 31/00 and, in Italy, by Legislative Decree 70/03 set forth by paragraph 2 of the resolution, according to which

2. Providers of video-sharing platforms shall take all appropriate measures to counteract the dissemination on the network, and in particular on social media, of coronavirus information that is incorrect or otherwise disseminated from sources not scientifically accredited. These measures must also include effective systems for identifying and reporting offences and their perpetrators.

With this provision AGCOM has created the prerequisite to overcome (even if it does not have the power to do so) EU and national prohibitions on entrusting private entities with the management of surveillance and censorship.

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