A proposed Register of Prohibited Internet Pages and Services built censorship controversy among bloggers and internet users in Poland.
The register is supposedly a measure against child pornography and other illegal content. But it is written in such a way that has bloggers fearing for their freedom of expression.
The register's critics suggest the confusing legislation will be overused affecting innocent bloggers and internet users.
The bill which suggests the new register does not state which content will get a webpage on the register and predicts the introduction of a mandatory hindrance in access to pages and services that include illegal content, Finance Ministry
spokesperson Magdalena Kobos said, though it remains unclear what kind of hindrance that should be.
The Ministry suggests self-censorship to users who want to keep off the register, though it worded this basic instruction somewhat differently.
Polish Internet surfers appeared to have won a vital battle against censorship plans of the Polish center-right government when Prime Minister Donald Tusk wrote an open letter to the online community saying the Cabinet's plans could be revisited.
The debate comes in response to protests from tens of thousands of Polish surfers who joined groups on community portals speaking out against a government-drafted bill that, if upheld by the Constitutional Tribunal, will create a register of
banned websites and services.
The government's plan, adopted by Parliament last year and sent for a constitutional probe by the president, is part of a wider set of radical anti-gambling measures that Tusk ordered in response to a lobbying scandal involving senior members of
Surfers fear freedom of speech may fall victim to the government's crackdown as the bill may tempt the public administration to ban not just gambling sites, but whatever content it disagrees with.
Polish surfers have just scored a major victory — under the weight of their online protests, Prime Minister Donald Tusk decided to abandon plans for Internet censorship, which are just one step from becoming the law.
In a statement on the prime minister's website, his office have said that after consultations between Tusk and NGOs the government decided to scrap the register of banned Internet websites, originally designed to block gambling sites.
Although the Polish government said it had abandoned the idea of blocking web sites with supposedly dangerous content, it is still seems determined to censor the internet.
Deputy Finance Minister Jacek Kapica has come up with an alternative solution to the online betting problem, which would enable him to exercise absolute control over the web, say critics. Kapica's idea is to create a special unit within the
customs service, which would control the web and block sites if a court decided that they contained 'dangerous' content or would enable internet users to gamble online, according to the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna daily.
The censors would be appointed by the Finance, Justice and Infrastructure Ministries.
The minister's idea is, in fact, a return to the previous government's proposal to create a black list of web sites with dangerous content which should be blocked. The proposal was severely criticized by internet users who claimed that the
draft bill would violate the freedom of expression on internet. After the protest PM Donald Tusk assured internet users that the government would abandon the idea and in the future consult them on legislation concerning internet.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that he wanted a change in a controversial draft law that would censor websites.
Tusk said he would ask the upper house of parliament to scrap sections of the draft law that would require website owners providing audio-visual material to register with the National Broadcasting Council.
Critics said the law amounted to censorship because the council would have the power to turn down websites seeking registration.
The draft law was passed by the lower house of parliament and is now set for the Senate..
Some 10,800 internet have supported a Facebook page with the messgae: Government, leave the internet alone.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on President Vladimir Putin to veto a new bill that would subject popular bloggers to the same restrictions as traditional media in Russia. The bill was approved by Russia's parliament, the State
Duma, in its final reading.
The bill would apply to blogs with more than 3,000 daily visitors. As with other laws recently adopted in Russia, the language of the bill is broad and open to wide-ranging interpretation and selective implementation by government agencies. It
bans bloggers from using their platforms for committing crimes, divulging state secrets, publishing extremist materials, as well as propagating pornography, the cult of violence, and cruelty, according to local press reports . They would
also be banned from using swear words, the news agency Itar-Tass reported.
The bill would also require the bloggers to publish their real names and contact details, news reports said. They would be allowed to publish only confirmed information and could be punished for distributing unchecked facts , the news
website Lenta reported. Punishment for violating the law would range from a fine of up to 500,000 rubles (US$14,000) to suspension of blogging activities for up to 30 days.
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said:
We call on President Vladimir Putin to veto this restrictive bill that, if passed, will censor the remaining independent voices in Russian media. The broad restrictions laid out by this legislation invite both its abuse by Russian authorities to
silence their critics and self-censorship on the part of bloggers in order to avoid potential repercussions.
If signed into law, the new bill will go into effect on August 1, the Russian press reported.
Poland has just made a decision to put online gamblers on notice that betting with unlicensed operators could result in criminal prosecution. T
Poland officially approved online sports betting in 2011. However the onerous regulatory restrictions have attracted just four Polish-licensed operators and it has been suggested that the four operators capture only about 9% of Poland's internet
betting market which is estimated at approximately $1.5 billion annually by Roland Berger consulting.
Poland still doesn't allow poker or casino games within its realm but last June revamped its Gambling Act that would allow EU-based operators to just establish a Polish branch office for tax purposes and open a Polish bank account. The amendment
would also require operators to supply responsible betting measures, including providing a record of player wins and losses upon request and periodically reminding players just how long they've been online with gambling.
According to the Ministry of Finance, the Polish Regulator has information about more than 24,000 players who have been participating in overseas gambling. The Regulator has already initiated more than 1,100 criminal investigations in this area,
and further proceedings will be initiated against the players who have received the highest winnings.
Until June 23 Poland was a green island on the European black sea of internet filtering. Once, back in 2010, the Polish government considered this popular yet ineffective form of preventing cybercrime. But as a result of eager public debate the
then Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, was advised against introducing a list of forbidden websites and services . The usual arguments used by freedom of expression advocates in other countries proved successful in Poland: Tusk decided against
the costly operation, having been persuaded that even with internet filtering in place, undesirable content would still be accessible. The infrastructure and manpower costs would surmount the limited benefits of the few lay internet users
actually believing the misleading 404 error message or complying with the automated ban.
Yet only six years later that debate and all relevant arguments seem to have been forgotten. As the Warsaw NATO summit dawns, and in the face of the growing threat of terrorism in other European countries, the Polish law on anti-terrorist measures, authored by the right wing Law and Justice government, has introduced the first ever Polish procedure on internet filtering, raising serious concerns about privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights.
Vague definition -- vast authority
The new Polish act on anti-terrorist measures came into force on June 29. It was approved by the Parliament without debate, less public consultation and within a week the President signed it into law. Despite calls from civil society there was no
public hearing on the draft, one kept classified until the final parliamentary vote, and the President, the acting guardian of the Constitution and the values it stands for, decided against vetoing it although the act itself raises fundamental
The critics have rightfully, yet unsuccessfully, indicated that the very notion of a terrorist threat, crucial to the implementation of this act, is vast and unclear. An event of a terrorist character , focal to the act, is defined as a
situation which is suspected to have resulted from a terrorist crime , making direct reference to the Polish Penal Code. In its definition of a terrorist crime the Penal Code reflects to some extent the existing international law consensus on
the notion of terrorism when it stipulates that an offense of a terrorist character is any offense committed to result in serious intimidation of many people, compel a Polish public authority or that of any other state or the authority of
an international organization to perform or abstain from certain activities, or cause serious disturbances in the economy of the Polish Republic, another state or an international organization.
Regardless of the reference to the existing law, the new definition of terrorist event strikes one as bluntly overbroad brushstroke, in particular since it directly reflects on the scope of human rights to be exercised. It seems a mirror
image of the infamous three hops FISAA rule , allowing them to restrict the right to share and access any information relating to a situation which is suspected to have resulted from a terrorist crime, and allowing a broad
interpretation of any activity as possibly connected with what might be considered a terrorist offence. It is this broad interpretation that prompts most criticism. The law remains silent on the procedures applicable in making such decisions and
the bodies competent to decide whether the suspicion is justified. The actual link between the terrorist crime and the introduction of special measures could be dangerously loose and vague.
The other argument made by the critics of the new law is that it is discriminatory - most of the antiterrorist measures are aimed at foreigners, including those from EU countries and applicable to all non-Polish persons (a vague resemblance to
the US FISAA logic of applying constitutional privacy and civil liberties guarantees only to US-persons can be traced here). For example the conversations of foreigners (regardless of the nationality of the person on the other side of the
line) may be eavesdropped and recorded by the Internal Security Agency without a court order.
The third point of contention is the right granted to the authorities to limit the freedom of assembly in circumstances perceived as entailing a terrorist threat -- a provision viewed as a possible way of curtailing public protests, ones which
Poland seems to have indulged in regularly of late. Luckily no official reference to online assemblies has yet been made, but one is left to wonder whether Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leading the governing PiS party, will follow in the footsteps of
another authoritarian leader and take Erdogan's example by applying the law on assembly to online gatherings on e.g. Facebook or Twitter, resulting in country-wide blocking of those services for all country users.
With regard to the application of human rights online, the introduction of a court-ordered blocking seems particularly alarming. In 2010 there was a debate on a list of forbidden sites and services in the context of enforcing Polish
gambling law. Its provisions required anyone operating a gambling service, both off-line and online, to register with the local Ministry of Finance. The reason for this was primarily a tax concern -- the government wanted to ensure that gambling
revenue fuelled the budget. The authorities quickly realized that the gambling law would be unenforceable against online services and in consequence there was much talk of introducing a list of gambling sites to be blocked unless registered. The
usual arguments (ineffectiveness of blocking, risk of unauthorized censorship etc.) resulted in Donald Tusk's government abandoning this idea.
While the debate in 2010 proved to be vocal and public, the 2016 law was rapidly passed, with few civil society organizations expressing any concern. Unlike in 2010 there was no roundtable debate with the government. Unlike with the ACTA protests
there were no protests in the streets. The official reasons presented briefly by the government referenced broadly increasing terrorist risks, in particular in the face of planned high-level meetings and mass events to take place in Poland this
summer. Should such terrorist threats appear online, whether it involved the inciting of a terrorist attack or instructing how to assemble a bomb, the power to curtail free speech and block such threatening content for the purposes of terrorism
prevention rests with the ABW. As explained by the government, this new instrument relates to information and communication systems and its purpose is the prevention and detection of terrorist offences as well as prosecuting the
perpetrators of such crimes. These measures are directed at terrorist organizations that use the internet to promote their ideology, instruct on carrying out terrorist attacks or to communicate with followers. Yet rumor has it that in the
works is also a list of gambling sites to be blocked. While there is no talk of copyright violations as of yet, the UK example indicates that those avenues will be explored next.
While the ABW authority is broad, there is a sense of judicial supervision present in the new act. It grants courts the power to issue an order for the ABW to install blocking or require the system administrator to block specific data or data
communication services available in the ICT system that they manage. This court order is to follow a written request from the ABW chief, made after having received written consent from the Attorney General. The data or services to be blocked need
to be related to an event of terrorist nature and they are to be blocked for a specified period not longer than 30 days . In undefined urgent cases however the decision to block or to have the ISP block data or services related to an event of terrorist nature
can be made by the head of the ABW after obtaining a written consent from the Attorney General. Once consent is granted, the ABW chief must refer to Warsaw District Court with a written request for a decision on the matter. The court may then
decide on blocking the relevant data for no longer than three months, unless the circumstances justifying the blocking have ceased. The court has five days to consent to the blocking or its continuation and unless a court decision is in place,
the blocking is to stop. The relevant court decisions are subject to appeal as per the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, but the right to appeal has not been granted either to the ISP or to the individual whose data has been blocked.
The Polish government is demanding that ISPs snitch on their customers who attempt to access websites it deems illegal.
The government wants to make the restrictions stricter for unauthorised online gambling sites and will require local ISPs to inform it about citizens' attempts to access them. According to the Panoptykon Foundation, a digital rights watchdog, the
government will compile a central registry of unauthorized websites to monitor.
According to the digital rights body, the government seeks to introduce a chief snooper that would compel data from ISPs disclosing which citizens tried to access unauthorised websites. In addition, the ISPs would have to keep the smooping
requests secret from the customer.
Local organisations are unsurprisingly worried that the censorship's expansion could turn out to be the first of many steps in an online limitation escalation.