We present here an interview published in december 2015 on the CINECA Consortium Magazine.
Do the legal principles covering the Net derive from general legal principles of from made-to-measure laws?
The general legal principles are always the same, of course. There would be no sense in trying to find a made-to-measure solution and a made-to-measure law for each specific problem, without due consideration for the overlying framework. It’s not always true, therefore, that, in order to regulate new technologies, new laws have to be made.
We need to get away, too, from the common idea that technology runs ahead while the law limps along behind. The reality is quite different. Take the laws on electronic signatures, for example. In Italy, the law arrived ahead of technology and even ahead of the need.
The principle has recently been affirmed according to which the law should be technologically neutral. On the basis of this principle, the legislator should not condition the market by favouring one technology over another, nor should he condition the development of technology. This approach is “functional” in the sense that it regulates, not the object, but the function. We must avoid constraining any specific form of technological or commercial development. Rather, we need to set out general principles that will remain unvaried for a certain period of time, and will not be constrained by changing technologies.
Apart from the electronic signature, another emblematic case is that of laws for the protection of consumers over remote sales contracts. What is involved, clearly, is a way of selling, not a specific technology. As far as the law is concerned, therefore, it is not important to make a distinction between purchases made using, for example, an App, or those made through a traditional website.
Speaking of users’ rights, the privacy and copyright laws are well known, but people are also invoking the right to be forgotten. What is this about?
The right to be forgotten is not a right in itself but it is nevertheless a restatement of other rights that are recognized by the law. Traditionally, the right to be forgotten describes a person’s right not to have republished information, even if it was legitimately published at the time, relating to events that happened a considerable length of time ago.
In Internet, obviously, the time involved is not that between publication and republication of the information, but the time that has lapsed since the item was published. The time factor regards, not just news items, but events which took place a long time ago, though for which this fact is not evident because no time context is given. In these cases, jurisprudence has suggested there may be an infringement of an individual’s right to his or her personal identity.
The problem is to ensure that the proper weight is given to the information, in order to avoid the person’s identity being distorted by the Net. As we saw from a decision by the Supreme Court, no. 5525 of 5 April 2012, this goal can be achieved by placing the information in context. It is not a right to be forgotten, then, but a right to a proper context.
The underlying theme, but one that emerges strongly, is that of the protection of an individual’s identity, in all its multiple forms.
What is at issue, then, is not the question of a specific news item about a specific individual and a specific event that can be retrieved through Google, but the protection of a person’s identity in the Internet, which is often perceived as a sole archive. It is not a sole archive, but it is a major source of information and sometimes the only one accessible.
“The Law in the Net”, but also “The Net in the Law”: how has Internet affected or modified the principles of “Jus Commune”?
Generally speaking, the principles of “Jus Commune” remain as before, but it cannot be denied that the advent of new technologies has brought fresh challenges for legal scholars.
What we have said about the right to be forgotten is a good example. In the real, physical world, the key element of this is the concept of “republication”. With Internet, on the other hand, the issue is the time the information stays available. Here it is not a question of drawing public attention back to a past event. The point is that, potentially, the past event has always remained there. So in this case the need that the law has to satisfy is a different one. It is no longer a question of republishing or not, it is a question of how a publication, that was maybe made quite legitimately many years earlier, is to be presented now.
A Net without borders: how have international regulations been affected by Internet?
The same general considerations apply. It is clear that the advent of Internet has drawn international attention to the need to regulate certain situations. I am thinking first of all of regulations aimed at encouraging the use of Internet as a trading tool and, as a consequence, the regulations set up for the protection of consumers.
A separate chapter belongs to the international conventions created to facilitate cooperation between the forces of law and order in relation to crimes committed via computer systems. I am thinking, for example, of the Budapest Convention of the European Council of 23 November 2001 on cybercrime.
Which judge has jurisdiction over disputes in Internet?
It depends on the nature of the dispute. The same procedural rules apply as in the real, physical world. The problem with internet is that the proper jurisdiction is not always easy to identify.
You are a teacher at Bologna University. How, in your opinion, has Internet revolutionized the world of the university? Is it simply a question of having new tools available for the administration and for the students, or is there more to it than that? Has there been a change of mentality, for example?
There are pros and cons to using Internet, in the university world like any other. Clearly, immediate access to a wider range of information has speeded up research processes. There is wider access to study texts. But it has to be said that the information stored on the Internet is disorderly. All the information on the net appears at the same level. From an academic point of view, research via the Internet poses problems for students, who are not always able to assess the reliability of the sources they are consulting. Consultation of texts in the library, on the other hand, allows more control over the information. It makes it easier to distinguish between original and secondary sources.
Turning now to the changes that Internet has brought to administrative aspects, we have to remember that publicity, that is to say the means of spreading awareness of information, is not the same on and off the net. On the Internet, anyone can access it without limits, unless restrictions to access have been expressly placed – reserved areas, passwords and so on. There are also no temporal limits. So publication online and publication offline are, legally, two very different things. Bologna University has adopted an innovative regulation on the publication of its official acts. The time of publication is limited to three years, and the regulations also cover the means of access and the essential nature of the content that is to be published. Transparency doesn’t mean publishing everything on Internet. Let’s remember that it’s a storehouse, not a structured archive of knowledge.
You were among the first in Italy to deal with these questions. Today you are a leading international expert, with major appointments and awards. What attracted you in the first place, and how would you sum up this experience today?
I must say that, from my professional viewpoint, I always prefer not to draw up a balance of what has been done. I prefer to look ahead to the things I still have to do. I always hope to make further improvements. I can certainly say that I am satisfied with having chosen to study a branch of law that is a continual source of new stimuli.
In the first place, I was pushed by curiosity for a new aspect of law. I was also fired by a passion for technical innovation. I therefore discovered, in my specialized field, a fascinating aspect of the legal profession: creativity in law. I believe, therefore, that I have been very lucky, not least because I have always found motivation and interest for my work. Nevertheless, however satisfied I may be, I am very much aware that a lot of new challenges lie ahead.