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Judge Blocks Access to Pirate Bay

A judge in the northern town of Bergamo, Italy, has ordered Italian ISPs (Internet service providers) to block access to the Swedish file-sharing Web site The Pirate Bay in a crackdown on the illegal sharing of copyright material over the Internet.

Four individuals identified as the administrators of the Swedish site, a Bit Torrent tracker that reportedly receives more than 20 million visitors a month, are currently under investigation for infringing Italian copyright law, Colonel Alessandro Nencini of the Bergamo finance police said in an interview Thursday.

Nencini said Bergamo deputy public prosecutor Giancarlo Mancusi had requested the shutdown after receiving a complaint from the Federation against Musical Piracy (FPM) in Milan.

Pirate Bay responded by inviting Italian users to switch to OpenDNS to bypass their ISPs' filters or use the alternative URL http://labaia.org -- "the bay" in Italian. But Italian authorities said they were confident access to the site had been completely cut off by Thursday.

Pirate Bay's administrators described the action as an assault on freedom of speech that was intended to protect the commercial interests of Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate who is prime minister of Italy.

"We're quite used to fascist countries not allowing freedom of speech. A lot of smaller nations that have dictators decide to block our site since we can help spread information that could be harmful to the dictators," Pirate Bay said on its blog. It invited Italian Internet users to contact their ISPs to urge them to appeal against the judge's ruling.

Pirate Bay has two weeks to lodge an appeal against the judge's action, Nencini said. "They have threatened to appeal against the order, but so far no one has made contact with us on their behalf," he said.

This is the first time a judge in Italy has ordered an Internet blockade in response to complaints about copyright violations, said Luca Vespignani, the director general of FPM. "Today it is completely impossible to connect to Pirate Bay from Italy," Vespignani said in an interview.

Access to alternative Web addresses and even future addresses connected to Pirate Bay have been blocked under the judge's order, Vespignani said. "If every country were to do this, it would put a stop to these illegal activities. I hope this model will be followed by other European countries," he said.

The FPM official said he expected legal efforts to convict the Swedish administrators of Pirate Bay and their Italian accomplices to be long and complex. Italian law provides for prison sentences of up to three years, a fine of up to €15,000 (US$22,000) and additional fines of €100 per illegal file for copyright violators.

Online commentators have suggested the legal action is part of a politically orchestrated campaign to crack down on illegal file sharing in Italy. Last month the same Bergamo judge, whom officials have declined to name, ordered the closure of Italy's leading Bit Torrent Web site and prosecutions are being prepared against three of its administrators.

On that occasion the finance police said the site's illegal activity constituted a serious disruption of the legal market and resulted in millions of euros of lost revenue to copyright holders and the tax authorities.

Though FPM's Vespignani denied either Berlusconi or his Mediaset broadcasting company were in any way involved with the latest complaint, last month Mediaset announced it was suing Google and YouTube for €500 million for allegedly hosting thousands of video clips belonging to the Italian broadcaster on the popular video-sharing site.

"Italy could soon become one of the countries with the most severe control over file-sharing, while lagging behind the rest of Europe in terms of net culture and alternative services for finding and legally sharing multimedia content," an anonymous blogger wrote on the Web site Mondotechblog.

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