Thursday, 26 January 2012

Young Poles outraged by ACTA

Demonstration against ACTA in Warsaw, photo by Joanna Erbel.
2011 was a year of discontent throughout the world, but apparently not in Poland. Poland's political class was spared the challenge of massive protests that blossomed in many places, from Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, through the Indignados of Spain, to the US Occupy movement. There is much to be angry about, to be sure. Life in Poland is getting harder, the privatisation-by-stealth of health service and education is going on, schools and kindergartens are being closed down, which makes it especially difficult for young parents, there's no affordable housing, the prices of municipal services and staple foods are 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 outrun Spain), and the vision of having a decent retirement in the future is becoming increasingly remote.

There have been plenty of reasons to get angry, and yet nothing happened -- at least nothing comparable to the Indignados or Occupy phenomena. And now, all of a sudden, we have a protest movement against ACTA -- Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, international treaty aiming to protect "intellectual property." The treaty is hermetic enough for professional lawmakers to get confused as for its consequences. And yet it was precisely this treaty that proved capable of sparking protests throughout the country.

The protests started the previous week, when it was announced that Poland is to sign ACTA on Thursday, 26th January. 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 refrained from signing the ACTA and organized genuine public consultations of the document. At the same time tens of thousands of people discussed on the internet, sharing information and analysis concerning ACTA. On Saturday, 21st January, the Anonymous attacked 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 the cyberspace and onto 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 ever took 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; "Union, Union, rub your penis!" ("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 a few hundred and fifteen thousand participants (fifteen thousand protested in Kraków). On Thursday, a major protest was organized in Poznań. Five thousand people gathered on the Liberty Square, and then some of them went to the regional office of the Civic Platform to smash a few windows. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people took part in a street protest during this three days.

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

The PM tries to play the role of a tough guy, but this time it does not seem to work. When the hackers revealed how they broke into the PM Office's 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 create 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 to consult it... after the signing ceremony. Let's 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 goverment had 7,774 comments removed from the PM Office's fanpage 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 the 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 about the citizens, including those concerning their sexual orientation or their genetic features. Some of those changes encountered opposition, and some did not. But nothing prepared them for the resistance they have to deal with right now.

And yet, in some way, this should be obvious. All of the previous reforms effectively deprived people of some of their entitlements, but they were consistent with the overall message of the present-day system: the state is not responsible for your good life, you have not got a right to the good life, you have got only the right to be let alone. Like it or not, the internet policy is the ultimate test of this promise. The internet users, especially the youth, understand that, with ACTA, the "System" is breaking even its modest promise to let people alone. And now they got into the streets and discover how it feels to be a "we." Will this experience empower a new generation of activists? The issue remains open, but the hope is out there.

Adam Ostolski


  1. I don't think this is the beggining of a new mass social movement. But clearly this is the end of docile and passive attitude towards the power holders. Maybe ACTA just came in handy? This is something tangible, and 'freedom of Internet' is finally something we can all fight for, despite different political affiliations and views.

    1. Thank you for your comment. On one hand, we already have got a genuine PROTEST MOVEMENT. On the other hand, a viable social movement requires a shared vision of social change, which clearly is not yet articulated. That is why I am cautious enough not to speak about a "social movement", but rather about a "new generation of political activists". This is more modest, but still encouraging.

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  3. I also don't think this is the beginning of a new mass social movement. But clearly this is the end of docile and passive attitude towards the power holders


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