An Italian consumer group yesterday said it is seeking damages of more than €20 billion after the outgoing government sparked a public outcry by publishing income levels of all citizens on the internet.

Consumer group Codacons said it was seeking compensation of €52 for each of the 38 million taxpayers whose income was made public on a government website, which was overrun by Italians curious to see what neighbours and co-workers earned.

The consumer complaint was filed with Rome prosecutors, who on Saturday opened a probe into the matter citing violation of privacy laws. Investigators promised that those selling or using the data "improperly" risked penalties or even prison terms.

"Whoever wants to put their nose in the affairs of others must have a qualified and concrete interest," Codacons chairman Carlo Rienzi said in a statement. "And in every case, they must leave a trace of their request for access and their interest."

Italy's outgoing centre-left government published the information as part of a crackdown on tax evasion, and has been forced to try to calm a growing public storm on the issue.

Outgoing Infrastructure Minister Antonio Di Pietro - a former prosecutor known for an anti-corruption drive in the 1990s - said critics of the measure clearly had something to hide. "There's no need to criminalise transparency," he said.

"Doing everything under sunlight is better than hiding something." But centre-right lawmakers accused the outgoing government of making a last spiteful move before leaving office.

"It would be much more transparent to inform Italians of how much the state spends to buy pencils," Guido Crosetto, a member of Silvio Berlusconi's party, told the La Repubblica daily.

"Putting the income of Italians online has nothing to do with fighting tax evasion." The Italian Treasury suspended the website last week after receiving a formal complaint from Italy's privacy watchdog, but many had already downloaded income lists from the database that are now being circulated on the web and via e-mail.

Some newspapers published lists showing the earnings of top business and political figures, and were full of anecdotes such as students looking up professors' salaries and others lamenting that the data showed how high taxes in Italy really were.

A poll by Italian television channel Sky Tg24 showed nearly half of Italians were mainly curious to see how much celebrities earned, followed closely by how much their neighbours took home.

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