I’m now in France, but I can’t leave Italy behind without a comment on one of
last year’s strangest stories: the report that one can’t use an internet cafe
in Italy without showing a passport or identity card and having one’s details
recorded.

It’s definitely true, as far as the law goes. In the name of combating
terrorism, complying establishments politely ask for your passport and
photocopy it before letting you at that dangerous instrument, the
computer. But many don’t comply, especially the slightly shady-looking
(and cheaper) fly-by-night establishments. Based on my experience, no
more than 50% are following the law.

Not only is there obviously a market for under-the-counter internet use,
but
there are other possibilities for abuse: how many other businesses are so easy
to set up and give you a legitimate excuse to photocopy people’s passports?
It
would not surprise me at all to find Italian internet cafes at the centre
of
the next outbreak of identity fraud.

More generally, the law is part of a worrying trend in international travel –
just as technology is making travel easier, governments are making it harder.
Each trip brings some new wrinkle; not just the bureaucracy-loving Italians,
but also the United States, which now insists on photographing and
fingerprinting you on departure as well as arrival, and also has airline
representatives back in Australia ask for an address that you are travelling to
before you check in.

The effects of these sort of measures are not indiscriminate. Businesspeople
and travellers from wealthy countries are least likely to be affected: they
have staff or travel agents who can arrange visas; they stay in hotels and
don’t frequent internet cafes; their countries can afford to issue snazzy
new
biometric passports that comply with American standards. Terrorists,
realistically, are not much inconvenienced either: most of them will be
supplied with the appropriate fake documents, and any real intelligence is
likely to be lost in the mass of indigestible information being collected.

The people who lose out are casual travellers, backpackers, and people from
poor third world countries – the sort of people who may have planned to just
take a plane to the US and find a hotel when they get there. For them,
international travel is becoming a nightmare series of hoops to jump through.

Peter Fray

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