Polish civil society stirs up debate on Internet freedom

By EDRi · February 23, 2011

This article is also available in:
Deutsch: [Polnische Zivilgesellschaft treibt Diskussion über die Freiheit des Internets voran | http://www.unwatched.org/EDRigram_9.4_Debatte_zu_Internetfreiheit_in_Polen]

The Polish chapter in the European debate on whether Internet blocking can
be conceived as a measure in fighting the dissemination of child abuse
images has finally been opened. This is due to the quite successful
campaign that EDRi-member Panoptykon Foundation, supported by the open
source movement and Internet Society Poland, has been running over last few

It has long been unclear what position the government will take with regard
to the Directive on combating sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of
children and child pornography. The Polish representative in the Council
refrained from taking a firm standpoint, which made us believe
that the government – mindful of civil society’s likely outrage – is
playing hide and seek, hoping that the Directive will be adopted with
the silent approval of Poland. Provoked by this game, back in November, we
managed to trigger some interest in this topic in two leading daily
newspapers. Right after the first article describing the alleged
tactic of the Polish government was published, the spokesperson of the
Ministry of Justice confirmed that the government “of course, supports
the Directive”, including the concept of obligatory Internet blocking.
This position was made very clear at the JHA meeting on 3 December 2010.

To us it clearly meant that the government was trying to do some policy
laundering. Almost exactly a year ago, – Polish Prime
Minister Donald Tusk, in a public debate with NGOs and Internet activists,
acknowledged that blocking Internet sites is a flawed measure and
should not be applied. Moreover, he promised that any future plans to
introduce legal measures affecting Internet freedom would involve
consultation with civil society. The present policy and the way it has been
carried out so far clearly contradicts both promises.

In an attempt to draw more attention to what is happening in Brussels
with the support of our government, Panoptykon organised a public debate
under the auspices of Polish Ombudsman, Prof. Irena Lipowicz which took
place on 10 February 2011. The discussion panel was composed of
representatives of the Ministry of Justice and four foundations representing
both sides of the debate: Panoptykon, Kidprotect.pl, Safe Cyberspace and
Nobody’s Children. The audience consisted mainly of journalists, academic
society representatives and technologically minded individuals.

While Panoptykon argued that there was no collision between protecting
children and Internet freedom because child abuse images can be effectively
removed and therefore do not need to be blocked, our opponents claimed the
opposite, on the grounds that international cooperation did not function
well enough. The debate revolved around the following issues: what are
the technical possibilities of removing illegal content; how to ensure both
fast reaction and due process; what are the challenges of international
cooperation; how can we prove that blocking tends to be used instead of and
not in addition to fighting crimes against children; how blocking can
disturb pending police investigations; how big the problem of child abuse
images on-line really is; and what role can the Internet community play in
addressing the problem.

The Government’s representative, Tomasz Darkowski, argued in
favour of web blocking. Mr Darkowski stressed that the Directive
should, in the first place, prevent Internet users from accidental and
unwanted contact with child abuse images. He also expressed a strong
belief that web blocking would remain strictly to child abuse
images and there were no reasons to worry about possibilities of
extending blocking to other types of content. This claim is all the
more astonishing when one can already hear some politicians suggesting
that hate speech and illegal gambling sites should be blocked. Polish
experience clearly shows that it does not take a lot to change an
existing law, especially in order to make it more radical.

In the end, the Ombudsman had a voice. She expressed her astonishment
with the hot atmosphere of the meeting caused by the huge societal interest
in the issue of website blocking. Prof. Lipowicz called in for more evidence
and analysis to support our claims. It was also clear that further
discussions are needed – first to explain the technical aspects of
blocking and the second to analyse the risk of extending blocking to
other types of “unwanted” content. The office of the Ombudsman is committed
to helping us continue the debate. In the meantime, we are collecting
evidence and analyses requested by the Ombudsman (the action called “Respond
the Ombudsman”) and preparing an electronic publication that will summarise
the debate. It will be published on 10 March 2011.

Finally, together with five other organisations, Panoptykon has sent an open
letter to the Prime Minister calling for a meeting “a year after”. We want a
serious discussion on the future of Internet freedom in Poland, which seems
threatened not only by the blocking proposal. There are at least four other
controversial and pending areas of regulation, which need to be explored:
data retention, content liability, nonlinear audiovisual services and the
implementation of the Telecoms Package. We hope that the Prime Minister will
accept our invitation and a working meeting with the government will
happen before 15 March.

With regard to Internet blocking, we hope to hear from the
Prime Minister the same words we heard from Woody Allen’s
character, quantum physics genius Boris Yellnikoff: “However, as only
a great mind can do, I’ve reassessed… my… position, and uh,
changed my mind.”

Open letter of Polish NGOs to the Prime Minister(only in Polish)

Report on the position of Polish government in the Council (only in Polish,

Reports from the public debate on Internet blocking (+video)(only in Polish)

Action “Respond the Ombudsman” (only in Polish)

(Contribution by Katarzyna Szymielewicz – EDRi-member Panoptykon Foundation, Poland)