Poland and the European copyright reform – the story about a speechless Ministry and the politicised street

The Polish government has just said no to the negotiation mandate of the Romanian presidency in the context of the trilogue copyright reform process. The official reasons behind joining a blocking minority are yet to be unveiled, but there’s no doubt it has something to do with the heated discussion on copyright in Poland.

On September 13th, the day after the doomsday when the European Parliament supported a version of the new European copyright law that shamelessly disregards users’ rights, I met a strange person walking down the street near my office in the very center of Warsaw. He was carrying a big, handwritten  poster stating: “European People Party – you’re liars, you’re thiefs, you sold our internet”. The question is, how did this strange guy in Poland become so interested in the voting in Brussels that he decided to take a stand?

Seven years ago, protests were held across Poland following the country’s decision to join the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which drastically would have restricted internet freedom. The impact of the street protests was so significant that the government decided to abandon its support. Since then, the ACTA opposition movement has been perceived to be a success story for Polish activists fighting for the open internet.

When I was a kid I loved Asterix and Obelix. “All Gaul is under Roman control, except for one small village in Armorica…”. In 2018, the same could be said about Poland, as “All Europe doesn’t care about the copyright reform, except for one country – Poland.” With so many social, cultural, and political challenges in Europe, it’s not too surprising that copyright reform wasn’t the priority topic of 2018. But in Poland, the reform news and narrative made its way into mainstream media. The Polish-language Wikipedia went dark, and even the Prime Minister commented on the issue, saying he would always oppose internet censorship. A movement of people calling themselves “stopACTA2” took to the streets again.

Tytuł: kolaż_YouTube
Autor: Joanna Tarkowska

It seemed that copyright reform in Poland was certain to become a political issue – especially taking into account the history of platform regulation and how easily arguments around freedom of expression fly in public debate. A few months ago the previous Minister of Digital Affairs,  Anna Strzezynska, presented the proposal for a new bill which aimed to guarantee that Facebook users can exercise their freedom of expression in the scope guaranteed by Polish law, not merely the Facebook terms of service. The idea was to create a fast legal path for users to challenge Facebook when their content was taken down. Some criticised this as censorship (there was a misunderstanding in public debate that any kind of regulation of platforms violates our rights), and eventually it was abandoned. But from a political perspective, it was a reply to the cries from loud right-wing movements claiming that their content is extensively removed by Facebook from its platform. Strangely, many of these advocates decided to join another battle for internet freedom—ACTA2. And that’s how we ended up with anti-EU arguments combined with the anti-filter copyright narrative.

In October we asked our Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (the entity responsible for the reform) about the negotiation instructions for the trilogue, since digital advocates have been left in the dark about what the Polish government is claiming (for last few months they’ve been communicating with the public only via tweets!). At the beginning they promised to disclose documents just before Christmas, claiming that they’d need two months to prepare them (sic!). And then, when we’re all wrapping gifts for our beloved and decorating Christmas trees, the negative reply came—the Ministry decided not to disclose anything regarding the EU copyright reform. We are still waiting for any formal explanation of this decision, and we’re still left with little to no information regarding the Polish government position within the trilogue negotiations.

So, with the Ministry pretending the copyright reform is not a relevant topic, we decided to create for them an opportunity to speak. In mid-December,  the Polish Internet Governance Forum was held and we hosted a roundtable on the copyright reform. We managed to invite both proponents and opponents. The Ministry did not show up.  

Many other interesting things have happened during last few months. Copyright was elevated to an issue covered in the national media, especially public television—it even made it on the main evening news. Polish internet creators launched the initiative against Article 13 https://www.tworcyinternetowi.pl/home-1. They signed an open letter supporting the idea of strong, creator-focused copyright, and rejected the new copyright directive as a path leading to censorship filters that will deprive them of their livelihoods. But for us the most significant thing happened in the Parliament—15 Polish MPs in the national Parliament initiated the process for the whole Parliament to issue a statement condemning internet censorship.

The Polish Parliament has no role in the European legislative process, as it is the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage that is responsible for the reform and represents the Polish position in the Council of the European Union. When the copyright file became hot in June, the Ministry should have taken responsibility for the public debate on the reform. We have been dealing with the subject for over two years, and an engaging and informed dialogue would have been welcomed the entire time. Instead, the Ministry only consulted the government’s position in 2017.

In addition, the majority of deputies signed under the bill entered the Sejm from the Kukiz ’15 list. A topic that could have united members from various political parties has been used for many months to deepen the neverending Polish-Polish conflict. For us as a non-governmental organization with a clear position on the subject (but which also understands the complexity of work on the Directive), this is an extremely difficult situation. The political message is always simplified and confrontational and does not seek productive solutions. We regret that the issues of internet regulation and fundamental rights in the digital environment have been reduced to simple slogans. The topic was also treated for a long time by politicians as an expert-only issue, and the current discussion shows how important it is for every internet user. Public debate, which many citizens expect, hasn’t taken place because the main political parties don’t engage in substantive discussion.