Eastern Europeans Fuel Fight for Internet Freedoms

ACTA protesterEastern Europe’s tradition of political
revolt has met the digital age. This time it’s not communists or food
shortages fueling fury, but an international copyright treaty that
opponents say threatens freedom on the Internet.

Pictured: An
internet activist wearing the “anonymous” mask is interviewed by the
media during a protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement,
or ACTA, in Zagreb, Croatia, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012. Several hundred
gathered to denounce ACTA agreement. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

A grassroots protest
movement erupted last month in Poland and spread quickly across the
former Eastern Bloc and beyond. The growing opposition against the
Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, has raised questions about
the fate of the treaty, which is important to the governments of the
United States and other industrialized economies.

have been street protests across Eastern Europe, attacks on government
websites in the Czech Republic and Poland, even a heartfelt apology from
a Slovenian ambassador who signed it and then decried her act as “civic

In a region where people
remember being spied upon and controlled by oppressive communist
regimes, the treaty has provoked fears of a new surveillance regime.

pact aims to fight intellectual property theft – like fake Gucci
handbags and violations of pharmaceutical patents. But it also targets
online piracy – illegal downloads of music, films and software – and
calls for measures that critics say would bring surveillance of Internet

“Most of the people who have gone to
the streets are young and don’t remember communism themselves, but
Polish society as an entity remembers,” said Jaroslaw Lipszyc, the
president of the Modern Poland Foundation, an organization devoted to
education and developing an information society.

“In Poland freedom of speech is of special value, and there is a history of fighting for it.”

a prominent ACTA opponent, sees his work today as a natural extension
of the same struggle for free expression that prompted his own family to
illegally print anti-communist essays in their basement during the

Eastern European countries, even those
now in the European Union, are still much poorer than the West, and
among critics are people who fear losing access to free – sometimes
illegal – entertainment. With joblessness in Poland at 12.5 percent and
the monthly minimum wage at just 1,500 zlotys ($465) pre-tax and average
wages at 3,605 zlotys ($1,130), many say they can’t afford 20 zlotys
($6.30) or more for a movie ticket.

became furious,” said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, director of Poland’s
Panoptykon Foundation, which campaigns for privacy rights in a context
of modern surveillance and opposes ACTA. “We have a history of rising up
against injustice.”

ACTA went from being an
obscure international agreement to a household term in Poland in
mid-January when the government said it would sign it within days. Civil
rights organizations like Panoptykon were outraged because the
government failed to consult with them first.

said they got word out on Twitter and other social forums, and soon
Internet activists in Poland and abroad – some with the group
“Anonymous” – waged attacks on government websites, including those of
the prime minister and parliament, leaving some unreachable for days.

anger drew on a broader frustration in society, especially among youth,
over a lack of jobs and a sense of alienation from the political

“This was the last drop that made it a
flood,” Szymielewicz said. “The Internet is a space of freedom –
something people feel really belongs to them – and suddenly the
government interferes with this space.”

and others were also primed to act because many had been following the
opposition in the United States to two similar initiatives, the Stop
Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act – known
popularly as SOPA and PIPA. American lawmakers shelved those bills after
massive pressure that included a one-day blackout by Wikipedia and
other Web giants.

Days later, Poles took to
the streets across the country against ACTA – activism that spread to
Berlin, Sofia, Bucharest and many other cities where thousands rallied
last Saturday. More rallies are planned for Feb. 25.

are also angry that the treaty was negotiated for almost four years in
secret without input from civic rights groups, giving them the
impression that it is a backroom deal made on behalf of powerful

The United States and other
proponents of ACTA deny that it will be invasive. They argue that
protecting intellectual property rights is needed to preserve jobs in
innovative and creative industries. The online piracy of movies and
music costs U.S. companies billions of dollars every year.

also vows that individuals would not be monitored online and that ACTA
would instead target companies that profit from using pirated products
like software.

“Civil liberties would not be curtailed,” says the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which signed ACTA in October.

opponents say the agreement is worded so vaguely that it is unclear
what would be legal and what not. Some people fear they could be
prosecuted for, say, mixing home video footage with a Lady Gaga song and
putting it on YouTube to share with friends.

it’s unclear what is allowed, people will limit their creativity,” said
Anna Mazgal, a 32-year-old Polish civil rights activist. “People could
censor themselves out of fear because it’s so vague.”

Many opponents also fault ACTA for putting commercial values like profit above rights like freedom of expression.

not surprising that European citizens are taking to the streets in the
thousands to protest against an agreement that puts rightsholders’
private economic interests ahead of their fundamental rights,” said Gwen
Hinze, the international intellectual property director with the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that defends
civil liberties on the Internet.

All the uproar has put ACTA’s supporters on the defensive, at least for now.

The agreement has already been signed by the United States, Japan, South Korea and about 20 other countries.

some governments which have signed it now say they won’t ratify it,
including Poland, Slovenia and Bulgaria. The Czech Republic says it
needs to analyze the matter before deciding. A key test will come in the
summer when the European Parliament will vote on it.

says it supports ACTA as a way of defending intellectual property
rights, but has promised to clarify doubts about it before signing it.
Thousands protested last Saturday against ACTA across Germany, where
data protection has long been a widespread concern and officials have
clashed with Internet giants such as Google and Facebook over privacy

The Slovenian ambassador to Japan, who
signed it in Tokyo last month on behalf of her nation, later
apologized, saying she had not understood at the time how it could limit
freedom “on the most significant network in human history.”

“I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness,” Helena Drnovsek Zorko wrote on her blog.

Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.