thinking is dangerous — it leads to ideas
President of the Board of the Polish Free and Open Source Software Foundation. Human rights in digital era hacktivist, Free Software advocate, privacy and anonimity evangelist; expert volunteer to the Panoptykon Foundation; co-organizer of SocHack social hackathons; charter member of the Warsaw Hackerspace; and Telecomix co-operator; biker, sailor.
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.
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.
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...
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:
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).
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 boy were we right, we were completely swamped with this work for more than a solid month). Our tasks from that point on were:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.