Italy's Communications Authority (Agcom) is to press ahead with a clampdown on Internet piracy, despite a massive mobilisation by opponents who say the measure constitutes a threat to freedom. Last minute modifications were however greeted by critics as a partial victory for civil society.

The Authority approved a ruling giving itself the power to order the removal from websites of material that violates copyright, but reserved the right to block access from Italy to foreign sites guilty of the same infringement for the courts. Previously, both measures required the intervention of an independent court.

As a concession to critics who organized a series of public initiatives culminating in a "Net Night" of protests on Tuesday, the Authority extended the period allowed for alleged copyright violators to respond to the accusation from five days to 15 and left open the possibility of an appeal to the courts against the Agcom's orders.

Two of Agcom's nine board members reportedly withheld support for the ruling, one abstaining and another voting against, and official confirmation from the body's website was unavailable for hours, as Agcom appeared to be the victim of a denial-of-service attack. The DDoS attack followed police action on Tuesday against suspected members of the Italian branch of the Anonymous hacker group.

The green light to the ruling will be followed by a further 60 days of consultation with interested parties, the Authority said.

The highlight of Tuesday's Net Night was a rally in Rome attended by politicians, artists, bloggers, entrepreneurs and jurists who denounced the measure as a threat to freedom of expression on the Internet.

Participating via webcam, Nobel literature laureate Dario Fo said: "We must make people understand that our patience has been tried to the limit and that we can't go on this way any longer."

Richard Stallman, the free software guru, also participated in the rally, but using old fashioned telephone technology. In an interview with L'Espresso magazine published last week, Stallman said the Agcom measure was doubly wrong, because it used piracy as an excuse to censor independent voices and prevented Internet users from sharing information. "Using copyright as an excuse, numerous websites that were saying uncomfortable things have been shut down, including in the United States," Stallman said.

Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the opposition Italy of Values Party and one of the first Italian politicians to open his own blog, also participated in the debate. "On the web the true judge is the citizen, who must have access to all opinions and all information so that he can make up his own mind. It's a question of democracy," Di Pietro said.

Writing in L'Espresso, Internet commentator Guido Scorza described Agcom's move as "an authentic coup d'etat" in cyberspace.

Entertainment industry bodies have welcomed the measure, however. SIAE, the Italian Authors and Publishers Association, said the ruling protected the rights and freedoms of those who create and produce culture. "The Agcom ruling doesn't hurt the user and doesn't limit his freedom," the Association said.