Italian cyberstalking case reveals Internet loopholes

An Italian cyberstalking case highlights legal loopholes about Internet privacy issues

The Internet is becoming a powerful forum for the airing of lovers' grievances, and the trend, underscored by high-profile breakups around the world, is stoking debate about Internet privacy and legal issues.

The British actress Tricia Walsh-Smith used a video posted on YouTube to bid farewell to her businessman husband Philip Smith and berate him over his alleged sexual preferences. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales turned to his own creation to announce the termination of a relationship with Canadian journalist Rachel Marsden, who retaliated by selling some of Wales' personal property on eBay.

In Italy, the acrimonious end to the marriage of an American musician and his Italian concert pianist wife has led to the hijacking of the latter's personal Web site and, some say, has exposed the inadequacy of privacy protections in the face of the enormous freedom of speech opportunities offered by the Web.

The Rome daily La Repubblica compared the marital breakup of New York musician and composer Wayne Gulezian and classical pianist Loredana Brigandi to Hollywood's "War of the Roses." But rather than barricading doors and hurling plates, in this case the violence has been purely verbal and "restricted" to the infinite spaces of the blogosphere.

The conflict broke out in public last December when Brigandi received an SMS (Short Message Service) from her estranged husband, inviting her to take a look at her personal Web site. Instead of a glowing account of her achievements in discovering and recording the work of little-known classical piano composers, it contained a diatribe against her and accusations that she was denying Gulezian access to their five-year-old son.

Brigandi has complained to the Italian legal authorities and the case is being investigated by prosecutors in Tivoli, a central Italian town near Rome. In the meantime she has created a new Web site, to continue publicizing her artistic career. But she has so far been unable to obtain the removal of the pirated Web site.

"The Web site was originally created by her husband but was bought by my client, using her credit card," said Brigandi's lawyer, Giovanni Nappi. "On March 10 he illegally took possession of it, paying US$45 to secure the domain. As far as the American server is concerned, he is the owner and can continue to use it, at least until there is a ruling on the matter by an Italian court."

It was startling how quickly defamation could be spread over Internet and how inadequate were the opportunities for obtaining redress, Nappi, a Rome-based lawyer, said in a telephone interview. Gulezian risked a suspended prison sentence if convicted by the Italian courts on charges of defamation and violation of privacy, he said.

"If someone were to write something offensive about the pope, the site would be taken down immediately. We need to have a system that provides a possibility of rapid redress for ordinary people as well," Nappi said.

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