Ostolski: Young Poles outraged by ACTA

[dropcap]2[/dropcap]011 was a year of discontent throughout the world, but apparently not in Poland. Poland’s ruling classes were spared the challenge of massive protests which rose up in many places, from Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, through the Indignados of Spain, to the US Occupy movement. There is certainly much to be angry about. Life in Poland is getting harder, the privatisation-by-stealth of the national health service and education is ongoing, schools and kindergartens are being closed down (making life especially difficult for young parents), there’s no affordable housing, while the prices of municipal services and staple foods keep rising (both at least partly due to recent changes in tax rates). Poland is now the leading country in Europe in terms of non-permanent job contracts (having overtaken Spain), and the prospect of having a decent pension in the future is becoming increasingly unlikely.

There have been plenty of reasons to get angry, though nothing happened – at least nothing comparable to the Indignados or Occupy phenomena – until the recent protests against ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an international treaty aiming to protect “intellectual property.” The treaty is hermetic enough for professional lawmakers to get confused as to its consequences, and yet it was precisely this treaty which has sparked protests throughout the country.

The protests started the previous week, when it was announced that Poland was to sign ACTA on Thursday. Activists and NGOs working in the fields of human rights, open culture or privacy protection, sent protests to the government. They demanded that the government refrain from signing ACTA and organized genuine public consultations of the document. At the same time, tens of thousands of people debated the issue on the internet, sharing information and analysis concerning ACTA. Saturday 21st January saw an anonymous attack on the websites of the Parliament, Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, among others. On the PM’s website the hackers left the following message: “Prime Minister Donald Tusk is an evil man!” Oddly enough, the government proved unprepared to defend themselves against a cyber-attack, but at the same time they felt enough self-assured to raise the possibility of announcing a state of exception.

A couple of days later, the protesters flew out of cyberspace and into the streets. The first street demonstration against ACTA was organized on Tuesday in front of the European Parliament Office in Warsaw. Three thousand people came to express their discontent. Both left-wing and right-wing activists, free market libertarians, communists, human rights liberals, football supporters and teenagers of both genders gathered together. For many teenagers it was apparently the very first time they had taken part in a political event. They cried against ACTA, against censorship, and against the government. The event may well have marked the end of uncritical euro-enthusiasm among Polish youth; “EU, EU, screw yourself!” (“Unio, Unio, zwal se ch…!”) was one of the most ear-catching exclamations of the day. Clearly, for many people the case of ACTA means that the equation “European Union = freedom = modernity” no longer seems to be self-evident.

On Wednesday, there were protests in many other Polish cities, gathering between one and ten thousand participants (ten thousand protested in Kraków). On Thursday, a major protest was organized in Poznań. Four thousand people gathered on Liberty Square, with some then going on to the regional office of the Civic Platform Party to smash a few windows. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people took part in street protests during just three days.

Meanwhile, both the Polish Ombudsman Irena Lipowicz and the General Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski expressed serious concerns about ACTA and appealed for the government not to sign up to it.

The PM tries to play the role of a tough guy, but this time it does not seem to be working. When the hackers revealed how they broke into the PM Office website (login: admin, password: admin1), it made Donald Tusk’s situation all the more vulnerable. Many people find it ridiculous that those who lack basic computer skills should be responsible for creating laws in this domain. The government lacked a consistent PR strategy: when the Minister of Culture Bogdan Zdrojewski was assuring the public that the document had been indeed properly consulted, the Minister of Administration and Digitization Michał Boni expressed regret that it had not, and promised a thorough consultation process… after the signing ceremony. Let’s us add that the Pirate MEP Christian Engström exposed serious misinformation in Boni’s reassuring statement (see: Polish Minister Telling Lies to Get ACTA Signed). And that the government had 7,774 comments removed from the PM Office’s fan page on the ground they were “vulgar” (an independent investigation proved that only as much as 1.49% of them contained any vulgar words whatsoever, whereas 6.5% were weird or off-topic).

The whole situation may be a shock for the ruling Civic Platform party. In previous years, they succeeded in strengthening the powers of the state: they gave the police more powers against citizens, built major data bases containing sensitive data about citizens (System of Information in Education, System of Information in Health Care), enabled the Supreme Chamber of Control to collect any data it wanted about the citizens, including those concerning their sexual orientation or their genetic features. Some of those changes encountered opposition, others did not. But nothing prepared them for the resistance they are having to deal with right now.

And yet, in some way, this should not have been unexpected. All of the previous reforms effectively deprived people of many entitlements, but they were consistent with the overall message of the present-day system: the state is not responsible for your well-being, no one has an automatic right right to a “good life”, you can only expect to be left alone. Like it or not, the internet policy is the ultimate test of this promise. Internet users, especially the youth, understand that with ACTA the “System” is breaking even this modest promise to leave people alone. And now they have taken to the streets and discovered what it feels like to be a “we.” Will this experience empower a new generation of activists? The question remains unanswered, but the hope is out there.


Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.