As dawn raids in Italy go, this was manifestly not your typical Mafia bust. When the Carabinieri Special Operations Group broke down the doors of several homes in Roverto and Trento in the early hours of February 28 this year, they were looking for neither hitmen, nor drugs nor weapons. They were hunting down a Bulletin Board System. That they saw Bits Against the Empire as a terrorist BBS indicated that censorship of the Net, Italian-style, had moved into its second phase.
For those on the receiving end of it, the raid came as something of a surprise. Demonstrating an extraordinary capacity for understatement, Luciano Paccagnella, systems operator of Bits Against the Empire observed: "it has been a very strange incident indeed."
Strange, because Bits Against the Empire's "terrorism" runs to an online library of documents and conference reports on nothing more than the social use of new technologies, on self-managed social centres and on independent music production. Hardly the height of subversion. But then Bits Against the Empire is associated with Clinamen - and Clinamen just happens to be one of a nationwide network of social centres, usually squatted buildings, which are used for political and cultural events, gigs and meetings. This is where the thriving Italian digital underground takes shape. And this is where the cops will look for insurrection. For their part, the police were carrying out a court order using legislation introduced in the 1970s to deal with the Red Brigades (the radical left-wing terrorist groups at large in the '60s and '70s). The warrant accused those arrested of "association with intent to subvert the democratic order" - an offence carrying a penalty of seven-to-fifteen years imprisonment for those convicted. As with much anti-terrorist legislation, it is a charge that requires little or no proof for a successful conviction.
"The Italian magistrates and police forces have shown a fascination for places like Cybernet and the http://www.dada.it/stranet/network/ecn/ecn.html">European Counter Network for some time," says Paccagnella. "Places which have experimented with new forms of social relations, new forms of contaminating culture in the light of digital media."
Although the BBS computer and all the other materials seized were returned over the three weeks following the raid - Paccagnella believes that the police have made copies of everything - and although Bits Against the Empire is now up and running again, the police have delayed an announcement as to whether they are going to charge anyone. At time of writing the police are still deliberating, and it is beginning to look as though the whole operation was merely a crude fishing trip to find out just what kind of material was being circulated on the network.
Semtex and cyberpunksPhase one of Italy's Net censorship programme was the stupendous "Italian Crackdown" of May last year, when a national police operation took over 100 boards offline in order to arrest two small-scale software pirates using Fidonet to distribute their illicit wares. But after the sledgehammer tactics used to crack the Bits Against the Empire nut, it seems as though even the Italian security services have begun to realise that people can log on to their favourite BBS without first slinging Armalites across their backs or tucking a couple of pounds of Semtex under their modems.
It's a reality that is becoming more widely acknowledged. One week after the raid against Bits Against the Empire, a special conference called Hackers, Terrorism and Mafia Crime was held at the Boccioni University. There the chief of Milan's Special Operations Group, Dino Finolli, dismissed arguments that hackers were connected with terrorism, or for that matter with the Mafia. This was not well received by some of the audience, who were hoping to hear dastardly tales of data-banks being cracked, viruses being spread and drugs being pushed online. To their further chagrin, the chief of the Italian criminal police, an expert in computer crimes, agreed with Finolli.
Nevertheless, although they may not be terrorists, many members of the underground set great store by their potential strength as a political force. They are convinced that in developing new communications mechanisms they are, in effect, reconfiguring society. Italy is a new state, less than 150 years old - and in that short time it has been subject to dramatic changes in its constitution, language and even geography. From Mussolini to Berlusconi via a range of enfeebled coalitions, it is understandable that Italians might see political power as transitory at best - and potentially there for the taking by anyone with the will. In the words of Gomma of Decoder, a radical cyber-culture magazine: "this is the first time since the '60s that a young counter-culture has moved this close to the needs of society in general." Integral to this is their use of BBSs as a means of cultural and social exchange.
Stranger than fictionStrano Network - the Strange Network - is the Florence-based organisation which recently ran Cyberspace Rights at the End of the Millennium, a big meeting of sysops, journalists, users and online activists. Strano members believe that the creation of networks, materials and community events has a strong political dimension, while simultaneously helping to develop the Net as a gift economy. (If free trade is the circulation of materials without imposition by the state, then a gift economy is an anti-economy, the circulation of materials for free). Among Strano's productions are the decidedly manic Metanetwork, a one-disk e-zine produced in the simple hypermedia programme Hypercard, and Strago di Stato, a recent multi-media history of Italian state terrorism, available on a single high-density disk and distributed on the electronic networks or through record shops.
Tommaso Tozzi, a member of the Strano Network, is the systems operator of two BBSs. The first, Hacker Art, has been online for several years now, and as well as the usual BBS stuff, focuses on developing collaborative projects over the networks. One feature is a gallery of pictures passed from user to user. The pictures are added to, or mutated, as they are passed on. The quality, inevitably, is variable. Some contributors believe that simultaneously using every filter in Photoshop will guarantee a good result; some actually produce work that is actually well worth seeing.
A similar project was Tozzi's 1993 sound/data CD Happening Interactivi Virtual. For this project, participants made digital sound files, passed them back and forth via the BBS and adjusted, mixed and remixed them until they were ready to be heard. His new playground is another BBS called Virtual Town TV. This uses an interface that shows various areas of the city - each devoted to different subjects or ambiences - in an attempt to create an interactive TV system based around QuickTime movies. Here you can find home-made newsreels of political demonstrations, sample a clip from a promo video, or see the results of someone wobbling a Handicam around a show by video artist Nam June Paik.
Complementing the BBSs are cyber magazines, such as the aforementioned Decoder, produced by the ShaKe collective. A wild border-zone in print, Decoder combines the intense mutie-graphics of Professor Bad-Trip, hacking news, guidelines for building night-vision goggles, essays on virtual identity, drugs and the breakdown of copyright, in a passionate info-explosion that has become essential reading in Italian Net circles. ShaKe also publish books and videos, and organise "Media Parties", which are a cross between raves and festivals of hands-on media. Says Gomma: "Surprisingly, the ShaKe co-operative has become, in a brief time, a point of reference not only for the Italian digital underground, but also for many people who work in the field of informatics and information." The collective combines a user's optimistic vision of technology with a critique of the dynamics of political power that stems from ShaKe's roots in the Autonomia.
Working-class and war paintThe Autonomia has repeatedly influenced the course of events in Italy over the last 30 years. It began with massive factory-based movements of the sixties and seventies that instigated an almost Copernican shift in the relationships between workers and bosses. Such was their impact that everything from the conditions and hours of work to the price of food, transport, entertainment and housing were often decided by mass working-class movements. Later, the Autonomia's aims mutated into taking over city spaces - by groups such as the Metropolitan Indians, who were not dissimilar to war-painted versions of Britain's travellers, only their interest was in the temporary takeover of urban centres rather than their fringes. Groups like these, in turn, led to the self-proclaimed cyberpunk activists of today.
Throughout, the Autonomia has consistently reinvented itself by offering new solutions to the perceived boredom and inequalities of Italian society. In a country where the financial streams of media, politics and drug cultures are often seamlessly merged, alternative voices are much prized. But for mainstream audiences, the Italian mediascape is one of the most diabolically banal in the world. Italy beats the USA hands down when it comes to crap TV. Here, the politics of democracy appear in their purest pixelated intensity. Instead of Reagan, a mere actor after all, Italy ditched the middleman and got its spectacle uncut in the form of temporary Premier Silvio Berlusconi (who owns six television networks and radio channels, 20 newspapers and magazines and an advertising agency).
According to book publisher Alberto Castelvecchi, Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, are so blatant about the link between entertainment and politics that when you ring the number of Video On-Line, the new information super toll-road service in which Berlusconi's core company Fininvest has a large stake, the telephone is answered by organisers from the party - thus it becomes the same service. If politics is becoming a strand of interactive TV, Forza Italia is the remote control turned back on the viewer.
From the government's point of view, this switch of power is unilateral. Under a law introduced during Mussolini's reign, every publisher of books, papers or magazines has to register with the government - when it suits, democracies can be quite accomodating of legislation introduced by their totalitarian forbears. The Italian government wants to know who people are and what they are saying, and it is inevitable that Net "publishers" will come under similar pressures. However, what Gomma dubs the "post-industrial phase" may yet presage a mutation in politics from the stage-managed conflict between left and right to a fractal antagonism between "molar" (block-like structures that work by force of numbers) and "molecular" (horizontal, self-organising) systems. In this potentially divisive political arena, it is unsurprising that "molecular" computer networks have become a focus for intense debate and activity.
Castelvecchi, who has begun to work in the arena of the digital underground following the success of groups like ShaKe, believes that in Italy, "we haven't got cyberpunk writers. We have a cyberpunk life." Certainly, the street finds its own uses for cyberpunk - through developments such as the AV.A.NA BBS based in a gigantic squat in Rome dubbed the Forte Prenestino. This board and around 40 others like it are members of Cybernet, one of the most fecund areas of Italian debate. Cybernet has message and file areas holding information on garage virtual realities, hacking, Aids information, squats and social centres. All are infused with an inspiring technologised optimism and political suss.
As well as running the board, the sysops of AV.A.NA (who are known under the multiple name "Mr Tuttle", after the renegade plumber in the film Brazil), also produce techno videos. A recent inspiration is the irresistable hyper-soap opera, Post-Fordist Love Story. This is the tale of an "immaterial worker" and a "hyper-aesthetic housewife" whose struggle to find true love through such everyday trials as viral infection, mutation and hair-dye, is decided upon by the multiple-choice entries of the users. Here, at least, the remote control is being reclaimed for the audience.
Transgendered cybersexAs in the United States, home to the Communications Decency Act, and the UK, where newspapers regularly trawl the networks for more sleazy porn stories, sex has inspired the introduction of laws which would govern online activity. The wildest speaker at the Cyberspace Rights at the End of the Millenium conference was undoubtedly the voluptuous Helena Velena, "transgender high-priestess of cybersex". She is the sysop of a Bologna-based BBS called, lest you don't get the message, Cybersex, which offers an online library of texts relating to sex, gender and technology.
Velena believes that sex, with its complex interrelation of the physical and mental, is an ideal way to explore networked realities - and, as a result, ourselves. "Cybersex is very important on the Net," she declares, "as it allows people to look at their inner feelings - to develop a new definition of themselves." Velena also maintains that, "at a certain point, cybersex and transgenderism fuse together. Many transgendered people come out on the Net, because there they have the possibility of analysing themselves. They say 'let's try and see if I could be something different from what I am'. They can experiment in a safe environment and see what happens."
Velena goes beyond the often-heard ideas of the network as a cosy therapeutic encounter-zone. "Cybersex is a means of communication. I believe the Net will play a big part in mutating sexual identity. You start on the Net and then go out on the street fully transgendered." For some, this may be a frightening thought - the Roman Catholic Church springs to mind.
Yet Velena believes that once people start to experiment with their sexual desires - on or offline - many other parts of their lives that might have previously gone unquestioned start to change. She thus explains why society is both fascinated by and unable to cope with the lurid possibilities of cybersex. "They are now using this 'terrible thing' that is pornography to try to say that we must put rules and laws on the Internet."
Like many people throughout the Net community, Velena sees the spectre of pornography as an exercise in hype and cites a recent article in the Italian current affairs magazine L'Espresso which resurrected the claim that 50 per cent of Net traffic is to do with "voyeurism". Stressing that only 15 out of around 7,000 Usenet newsgroups are in fact about sex, Velena believes that the only real voyeurs on the Net are journalists and the politicians who feed off them. "Politicians need to start their battle in a way that everyone will agree with. If they say we need these regulations because there are so many dangerous paedophiles on the Net, everyone on both the left and right, everyone, will agree but when the regulations are passed, then they will be used for different purposes."
According to Luciano Paccagnella, "it is not surprising that the repressive organs of the state have reacted to their own technical and social ignorance by seizing an instrument of communication like a BBS. If they can't understand something, it means that they can't control it, and what can't be controlled is dangerous for a social order based upon fear and institutionalised violence." The advantage, then, will always lie with people who are trying to do something with the structures, rather than simply trying to stop things happening.
Or, as Helena Velena puts it: "if you really want to send something and you don't want someone to intercept your messages, you can still do it. The Government has got the new technology; the underground has got the new counter-technology. So the fight goes on."
What has become clear is that the potential power of the Italian digital culture and its understanding of its impact on society at large has now been recognised by the state. Early responses have manifested themselves as first strikes by a paranoid police force; and the immediate effect has been to push the real action deep underground. This may not necessarily be a bad thing.
For deep underground, a strong, experimental and antagonistic will to self-determination will find the room to grow. And more than this, there is such a strong sense of life in the boards, magazines and networks of Italy that they may soon be less concerned with asking for freedom of speech than with actually achieving a new kind of freedom through their crazy, passionate, technologised speech.
Matthew Fuller (firstname.lastname@example.org) contributes to i/o/d (Wired 1.01, p103). He is chronically allergic to classification by work.
AV.A.NA BBS +39 (6) 257 4110 Bits Against the Empire +39 (464) 435 189 Cybersex BBS +39 (51) 555 355 Decoder BBS +39 (229) 527 597 Decoder email@example.com Tommaso Tozzi firstname.lastname@example.org Virtual Town TV +39 (55) 485 997 Hacker Art BBS (part of VTTV) +39 (55) 485 997