Poland has a history of interesting revolutions, including its famous, peaceful transition in 1989. No one, however, reasonably expected that the country would become the hub of a very unusual, civic revolt: a grassroots, non-partisan—some even say “cultural”—movement against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The enemy was a diplomatically-drafted international agreement, yet it generated unprecedented street protests in the short history of our democratic state.
Between January 20 and February 24, Poland witnessed an amazing political awakening of its young citizens. Protests covered the country; hundreds of thousands joined anti-ACTA groups on social networking sites, and in a single week Polish MEPs were flooded with over 100,000 emails urging them to vote against the agreement. Self-proclaimed hackers used distributed denial-of-service attacks against government servers, interrupting the operations of the Parliament, prime minister, and the Ministry of Culture—the latter of which is officially responsible for ACTA dossier in Poland.
But what was perhaps most revolutionary was a movement that cut across political and ideological lines. For the first time hacktivists and anarchists joined arm-in-arm with ultra-conservatives and nationalists.
How did this come about? Both the mainstream media and the Internet were already reporting on the massive protests against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act) laws in the U.S. (While the creators of SOPA and PIPA say they are aimed at preventing foreign websites from committing copyright infringement, many people believe they will negatively impact free expression online.) However, the trigger for the protests in Poland came from within.
Those following the international ACTA debate must have been surprised to see the Polish chapter becoming so active over the weekend of January 21–22. Indeed, as an organization that has dealt with the topic for years we ourselves were truly taken aback. On January 19, civil society organizations, including the Panoptykon Foundation, met with government officials to discuss Internet regulations, including ACTA. To our surprise—and contradicting earlier public statements made by the prime minister—the officials at the meeting announced the end of public consultations regarding ACTA and that the government would sign the agreement the following week in Tokyo.
Our release of this news started a chain reaction that no one could have predicted, not to mention planned or coordinated. Every single civic organization in Poland active on the issue of digital rights voiced their concerns: the lack of democratic process; the failure to understand social rules existing in the digital world; the imbalance between the protection of fundamental rights and commercial interests; and the disproportionate limitations of freedom of expression, access to knowledge, and the right to privacy.
What did the protesters really want? While public debates articulated the more moderate arguments, the crowds, either online or those marching in the freezing-cold Polish streets were less forgiving: “ACTA equals censorship”, “ACTA means the end of the web as we know it”, and simply “ACTA kills” (referencing provisions that would limit access to medicines). “Censored by ACTA” appeared throughout the online conversation, and although most protestors had probably not read the actual text of the agreement they clearly understood the impact it would have on free and open Internet. Over the last 10 years, people in Poland increasingly felt the effects of intellectual property rights, data retention, profiling, data mining, and online surveillance: ACTA was simply the last drop in the bucket.
Despite support from legal experts, mainstream media, and public officials like the Ombudsman and the Data Protection Authority, the government was surprisingly stubborn. Together with the majority of EU member states, the Polish ambassador signed the treaty in Tokyo and the prime minister announced that “he would not yield to the blackmail” an apparent reference to the cyber-attacks. The prime minister did agree to real and open public consultations on ACTA before its ratification.
This promise was not enough to satisfy the protesters and the movement gained new energy. It took less than a week to see the government’s stance begin to crumble. On February 3, the prime minister announced the “suspension of ACTA ratification for up to 12 months” in order to create a proper space for a much needed dialogue with the society. It soon became clear that “suspending ratification” would not stop the protests.
It took another week for the government to come to a conclusion that even the protestors themselves did not expect: ACTA is wrong and should be stopped at the European level. Not only did the government openly acknowledge their mistake and readiness to block ACTA but also decided to push for a positive reform of the intellectual property regime. On February 17, the prime minister sent an appeal to the heads of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament to stop ACTA. Paweł Zalewski, an MEP from the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) party, was given the challenging task of instigating a comprehensive reform of the European law in this area. Minister Michał Boni, responsible for administration and digitalization, was responsible similar reforms in Poland. Within a single month, the prime minister and his cabinet shifted from the conservative position (ACTA does not pose any threats and is good for our economy) to the more revolutionary one (not only must we block ACTA but we should change the entire system).
This radical shift was felt across the European Union. The Polish prime minister’s strong declarations effectively limited the options for Member States like Germany that had not yet signed ACTA. According to the European Commission, ACTA cannot be adopted at the European level unless both the Parliament and Member States give their consent. It became very clear that a Polish “no” meant political death for ACTA in the EU.
We still aren’t clear why Polish citizens took to the streets to fight ACTA while in other places protests have remained limited to political and technological experts. Maybe we simply prefer civic revolt to lengthy cabinet discussions. But it may also be that ACTA revealed some of the urgent problems facing our society.
Regardless, there is no question that consultations around ACTA failed at both the Polish and EU levels. ACTA was negotiated in secret: although some U.S.-based companies were given access to documents during the negotiations citizens were denied this privilege. Officials ignored the fact that the agreement was much more than just another trade agreement but an something with the very real potential to significantly impact fundamental rights. ACTA revealed the clash between “digital society” and “analog government”, proving once again that these two do not talk with the same language nor live in the same reality.
Finally, the massive anti-ACTA protests highlighted the real economic and political exclusion of the young generation. In Poland, and around Europe, young citizens feel frustrated with their limited career prospects and what they perceive to be repressive legal regulations in all areas of life. The Internet was seen as the one area relatively free of state control—a place where young people can communicate the way they choose. ACTA became a symbol of the oppressive politics of control, it was simply the final straw that unleashed pent up frustration and civic anger.