Anti-ACTA in Poland - seen from the inside

To say that much was happening lately around ACTA in Poland is a huge understatement. During the last two months we went from being informed of planned ACTA signing, through street protests (spreading far beyond Poland), so-called “attacks” on Polish government websites, the signing itself, then attempts of returning to talks and finally — complete reversal of the official government stance and calling the treaty “passé”.

It was an important, powerful and extremely interesting outburst of so-called Internets against something perceived to be a danger to the liberties and rights to use this great tool.

A note to English readers: wherever I could find English sources, I used them; however, many a time it was not possible, hence you will find many Polish links in this text. This post is also available outside EdgeRyders (including Polish version).

Hit Fits the Shan

First and foremost — none of participants to the memorable January meeting with the Ministry of Administration and Digitalisation expected what was going to happen.

On one hand, this is a statement of how trusting towards the government the NGOs had been (remembering the promise given on the 18th of May, 2011 that all works on ACTA shall be halted until all our questions are answered). On the other — a testament to just how completely ignorant of the importance of this treaty the ministries responsible for it in Poland — the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Ministry of Economy — had been.

After casually remarking on the fact of the planned signing in one week’s time (on the 26th of January), representatives of those ministries apparently intended to just move one to next items on the agenda.

Obviously, at this point there were no other items. Few seconds of complete silence followed: people from NGOs were trying to comprehend what exactly has just been said, while the host of the meeting, minister Igor Ostrowski, published a single tweet and sank into disbelief; representatives of the two responsible ministries themselves looked like rabbits caught in headlights, starting to slowly realise something bad is going to happen, but not really sure what and why…

Internets awaken

From this moment onwards everything has been happening with tempo that surprised everybody; after first information on planned signing surfaced, Polish Internet seethed with rage, just as it did two years before when ideas of network filtering and censorship surfaced (those have been dumped since). There were, however, important differences:
  • many Polish Internet users, especially those more tech-savvy, followed the ACTA topic for years, hence the pressure and interest were already there;
  • there were promises made by the government regarding the treaty and those were broken, so naturally people following the topic felt cheated;
  • there was a concrete date set, in the nearest future, so time pressure was also there.
Additional crucial factor was provided by the SOPA/PIPA Blackout, ending mere hours before ACTA signing plans surfaced. The public was well informed about dangers stemming from those and similar attempts to curtail Internet sharing and was interested in the topic. ACTA became a natural continuation for the SOPA/PIPA topics present in Polish media for more than a week by then. And it was something that actually applied to Poland.

One important thing to remember is that Poles still do remember vividly the communism years, police state and censorship. And vehemently oppose any attempts of bringing them back in any form.

All this meant that the energy of the outburst was significantly higher than two years before. During just few hours, instead of open letters and on-line petitions that had been the prime tool back then, real people organising true street protests and manifestations started to appear. What is essential (and very interesting in and of itself), these were completely spontaneous, grass-roots activities, not associated with NGOs that had been bringing up the ACTA problem for years (like Panoptykon, ISOC, Modern Poland Foundation or Free and Open Source Software Foundation).

Ground rules

Instantly we understood that — being the NGOs involved in the ACTA topic for years — our job is to take upon ourselves the role of experts and rudimentary coordinators; simply put, we would not find the time to do anything besides that (and my, were we right, we were completely swamped with this work for more than a solid month). Our tasks from that point on were:
  • providing know-how, information, documents, statements regarding ACTA and related topics;
  • reacting to whatever was happening (sometimes the situation was literally changing by the hour), including providing coherent communiques for and via media;
  • attempting to influence the individual protest organisers from all around Poland to keep their protests peaceful, on-topic, organised according to law of the land and as far as possible — coordinated in time.
Completely organically we understood we need a no-logo rule — no party, group or similar logos, banners, flags, etc. Just protesting together against a single cause, not promoting our respective organisations. This met with some dissent at first — not surprisingly many entities tried to pin their names to this huge commotion. We all understood perfectly, however, that once any political party or group attaches their name to this informal movement, it would spell failure: we would get tagged and pushed into old categories, and hence trivialised.

Sea of people

And then came the day of protests — tens of thousands of people in the whole country decided to face the -30°C temperatures to voice their critical opinion over the treaty.

There were no such protests in Poland at least since the 1980’s. They covered the whole country, including smaller towns; they were peaceful and on-topic; they all concerned a single issue, and all had the same slogans on banners and being shouted by the protesters; people from all possible political groups and affiliations took part, often side-by-side with whom they normally perceived as enemies, and heeding the no-logo rule; interestingly, politicians that tried to hook themselves with the protests — all failed miserably.

Thanks to excellent and coherent stance of the individual protest organisers it was possible to fend off politicization of the protests; that made it possible for very different groups of people — from right-wing activists to anarchists, and everything in between — to stand together, protesting hand-in-hand against a common cause. No one felt uninvited because of their political views. And that meant more people protesting together.

An unintended consequence of this political diversity on the streets was that neither politicians nor media had a clue how to describe the movement, how to narrate about it nor categorize it. In no way did it fit the traditional ways of describing protests in Poland. That also worked in our advantage. It turned out that neither media nor politicians are able to handle truly grass-roots, spontaneous initiatives focused on particular issues, functioning over (or away from!) the usual political and social divides.

Government websites get popular

This inability to tag the protesters ended as soon as government websites got "popular" — as that is how the government spokesman at first described DDoS action by Anonymous. As soon as government officials understood their mistake, instantly they took the opportunity and started describing the anti-ACTA movement as "hackers, terrorists", "attacking" government websites.

It was so very convenient for the government as it made it possible to portray the protests in unfavourable way and gave the perfect excuse to discard valid objections of hundreds of thousands Poles:

We will not succumb to blackmail.

Immediately we saw that coming and tried contacting Anonymous in order to try and convince them to halt the attacks. To our surprise, it was effective.

Still, the “blackmail” excuse has been already used and ACTA got signed by the Polish ambassador on 26th of January.

Protests, however, continued — and mainstream media started publishing opinion polls regarding them.

Let's talk

Apparently, that was finally something the government took notice of. Suddenly it became apparent that we're not some "anonymous Internet users", but living, breathing citizens, voicing our objections regarding something the government decided to do. We stopped being seen as some kids with a computer, "pirates", "hackers"; the government was starting to see that there are Voters in our ranks. And that made a world of difference.

The government switched into damage control mode and started frantically seeking ways of “establishing a dialogue” — in other words something we called for for years… Also, Polish Ombudsman in her statement regarding the situation, called upon Polish universities to organise debates on the topic.

We decided to organise our own event, to meet each other, get as many of the people involved in a single place and share the know-how, giving protest organisers tools and information needed to be effective in what they were doing. So we organised the Improvised Free Internet Congress.

At this point the government already seemed desperate. A single day before the Congress (Friday evening!) we received invitations to a debate with the Prime Minister and ministers, planned for… the following Monday. This might have been a cunning move aimed at not allowing us to respond (media are slow on weekends), or a desperate attempt to relieve the tension as soon as possible. The fact that minister Boni unexpectedly (a single hour in advance) announced his coming to the Congress suggests the latter.

Naturally, one of the main (and of course by far the hardest) tasks at hand at the Congress was formulating an answer to the invitation to the Monday debate. Finally we realised that in light of sending out invitations on Friday evening and taking into account how well over a year of talks about ACTA with the government worked for us, only a single answer was proper: decline.

We decided, however, to take part via electronic means — especially when we were able to convince the organiser of the debate (Ministry of Administration and Digitalisation) to include, apart from a bit unfortunate choice of Twitter and Facebook (closed, private, corporate networks), also good old standardised IRC (a dedicated, moderated channel was set-up on Telecomix servers).

The debate lasted over 7 hours straight (which, of course, meant a lot of comedy-grade material). Nevertheless, it seemed that the government started treating the ACTA topic really seriously.

PM Tusk admits a mistake

And finally on Friday, the 17th day of February, 2012, Prime Minister Donald Tusk admitted he was wrong. This took us completely by surprise, but curiously the most surprised seemed to be the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage — as only the day before they sent out a document defending ACTA. They were so surprised, in fact, that they apparently cancelled their representative's participation in ACTA debate planned for the following Monday (but announced before PM's decision reversal).

We have much to discuss

This debate was quite important, as it was the first of the university-organised ACTA debates, postulated by the Ombudsman that took place after PM's change of heart. Instead of ACTA, then, we debated on copyright reform.

This trend continued throughout all university-organised ACTA debates. This way, a bit by luck, a discussion on a dearly-needed copyright reform started in Poland. And this time, the government appears to take active part in it.

Come on Poland!

What a beautiful story! The civil society taking charge, reacting to an international treaty perceived as a slide towards a surveillance state, and killing it in just one month. Everything is there: reining in the hotheads (the counterproductive DDoS attacks by Anonymous), shared knowledge through the net, adhocracies (the aptly named Improvised Free Internet Congress), street protests, and the happy ending of the government now actually discussing copyright reform with the civil society.

I am intrigued by your statement  that “Poles still do remember vividly the communism years, police state and censorship”. This is indeed a very valuable contribution to the global debate not just on ACTA, but on Internet surveillance, and perhaps surveillance in general: we need watchdogs to make sure the need for security does not make us slide into a police state. We can’t trust corporates with that job, because a stable police state is good for business, and Western tech firms are not above selling surveillance technology to the bloodiest dictators on the market place. But in Europe we do have a reservoir of expertise: you guys in Eastern Europe are it. So I guess we should all listen very carefully to what Poles, Czechs etc. have to say on that matter. And do let’s discuss copyright reform, by all means. The Digital Agenda Commissioner has started to question the existing system, so the timing is right.

we must cultivate our garden

We’ll see if the ending is in fact happy once we get some serious changes into copyright law, but indeed we’re optimistic. :slight_smile:

As to our collective (pun not intended) rememberance of communism and our loathing of censorship - we should all be careful and vigilant. “The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance” (was that Thomas Jefferson?); it might be so that Poland will send the first signals, or maybe someone else will - but nevertheless we should all be watchful and react as soon as such signals come up.

There is a huge problem with privacy, censorship (including through the court system and “anti-slandering” laws), surveilance (millions of CCTVs only in London itself) in Great Britain. This country is in my humble opinion way farther on the slippery slope towards a police state than anybody is ready and willing to say…

France is another point of concern. HADOPI on the copyright/internet front, and all too easy answer to the latest tragedy (“terrorism”) being the increased surveilance and prosecution (or is it persecution, already?), social profiling, alienating its own citizens because of their faith and skin colour.

Already Sarkozy said they will prosecute anybody who even visits websites calling for violence. Apart from the obvious question “so will they prosecute the agents that verify the sites indeed call for violence, or will they operate on hearsay”, this is a classic example of a knee-jerk reaction, and a definition of prosecuting “thoughtcrime”.

There are many places were action is needed, and instead of looking to Poland or the Eastern Bloc for hints, maybe it’s better to actually look around us and start doing something in our back yard. You know, the Voltaire’s Candide way. :wink:

That’s a tough one

Man, that on copyright is no easy fight. I am impressed that you people can muster up optimism at all. It may be justified, but it is only now this has become possible. I have been watchng from the sidelines in impotence ever since Napster.

I am hoping that somebody in Brussels realizes that you can do investment attraction by going soft on IPRs. All of the Makers movement companies would rather welcome a business environment where patent trolls cannot sue them. You got any leverage with the industrial policy crowd, now’s the time to use it.

How to emulate this success reliably?

In order for this to be copiable as a way of engaging in political action, it would be useful to come up with a step-by-step plan with known risks and failure modes, which could be followed for any such issue. A successful roadmap would be of such a nature that one could inform ones opponents of the entire plan without them being able to prevent it (full information victory strategy), and yet have its veracity (likelihood of succeeding) be incumbent on there being popular support for it (i.e., democratic rather than dictatorial or random, which gives us an interesting linkage to the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem)…

What do you think?

I think the roadmap you describe (full information victory strategy part mainly) is probably impossible, the only possibility of such a roadmap being for it’s success to actually hinge on popular support (if there is an overwhelming support, then giving away the information on the roadmap is not dangerous). So, if it’s possible, it’s precisely what we want and what you describe.

Creating such a roadmap would be as interesting as time- and energy-consuming. And I do believe some serious ground work would have to be done in person, with most (all?) of the people interested in writing it present in a single place at a single time. Are you going to the EdgeRyders conference in June?

And as far as voting goes — oh, the science of voting… (seriously, read it, it has some nice ideas on how to design a maximally just voting systems).

Arrow’s theorem

You can’t have Gibbard-Satterthwaite without Arrow. :slight_smile:

It’s not impossible… it’s just difficult.