(Updates with site being suspended)
By Robin Pomeroy
ROME, April 30 (Reuters) - Italians were surprised, and in some cases outraged, on Wednesday to discover their income levels were available for public viewing on an Internet site.
As part of a crack-down on tax evasion, the outgoing centre-left government made public every citizen’s declared taxable income on the state’s tax website, a decision attacked by consumer groups and some politicians.
Later on Wednesday the Italian Treasury suspended the website after it received a formal complaint from Italy’s privacy watchdog.
In the few hours the site was operational at www.agenziaentrate.gov.it, it was overrun by Italians curious to know how much other people were earning.
Leading daily Corriere della Sera said the site was “a delicious opportunity to find out with a click how much your neighbour or colleague or, for gossip fans, celebrities earn”.
“It’s a clear violation of privacy law,” said consumer group ADOC. “A danger for an increase in crime and violence as the data are an irresistible source for criminals.”
ADOC said the fact that tax return forms do not include a request for consent to the data being published means their appearance on the Internet was clearly illegal.
Tax evasion is rife in Italy and both incoming prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the man he succeeds, Romano Prodi of the centre left, promised combatting tax cheats would help plug a hole in the budget.
But many Italians resented a crack down under Prodi and Berlusconi himself said during the election he would stop the “atmosphere of threat and terror” that had been imposed.
Prodi’s tax minister, Vincenzo Visco, often dubbed ‘Dracula’ by his detractors, said the website was meant to go live in January but was delayed until now to avoid clashing with the campaign for the April 13-14 election.
“It’s all about transparency and democracy. I don’t see the problem,” Visco was quoted as saying on Corriere della Sera’s website.
Guido Crosetto, a member of Berlusconi’s party, said the move was the last spiteful measure of the defeated centre left before it hands over power next week. “It’s a very strange thing to do on the last day before clearing off,” he said.
“Taxpayers need to pay less tax, not to know how much all the other Italians are paying.”
Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte Editing by Richard Balmforth