A quarter-century ago, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain rose, the people of Central Europe chose capitalism over communism and democracy over dictatorship. Today, however, citizens of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – the region's four ex-communist countries – are turning in a disappointingly mixed performance when it comes to promoting and protecting Internet freedom.
A recent study in these four countries by our organizations shows that all of them can – and should – play a powerful role in promoting the free flow of information. But much needs to be improved. The Czech Republic has a strong record of supporting free expression, curbing surveillance, and promoting transparency, but Hungary persecutes bloggers and publishers with heavy fines and other sanctions. Poland and Slovakia fall somewhere in between.
The four countries are poised to benefit greatly from the new digital world. Each has the prerequisites for open and lively online communities: decent Internet penetration and democratic, plural political systems. The region’s “high level of mathematical education, low overheads, and a globalized, westernized young generation makes for a heady and successful mix,” the Financial Times recently reported.
Indeed, the FT’s “New Europe 100″ list of innovators from Central and Eastern Europe includes many examples of Internet success stories. There is “a Hungarian doctor who has created a medical advice website driven by social media, a team of Polish students who have built an award-winning robot that could operate on Mars, and a Slovak inventor of a flying car.”
And yet, despite their own experiences under communism and the outcry within their borders over Edward Snowden’s revelations of Internet snooping, the governments of Central Europe have not taken a strong stand to rein in their own authorities. The police file thousands of requests each year to monitor Internet use, and local courts almost always grant them. Users are rarely notified of such requests, and the basis on which they are made is often unclear.
Too often, laws ensuring Internet freedom are ignored or bent. Debates rage over whether content should be blocked and which copyright protections apply to Internet publications. Bureaucrats drag their feet on requirements to make information accessible online, and the courts are over-eager to initiate cases that should be settled with notice-and-takedown procedures specifically devised for online content.
In all four countries, the legal framework is badly in need of reform to clarify the boundaries of freedom of expression for bloggers and journalists. Legislation must to be modernized to reflect developments in the online world and to recognize the enormous shift in personal communication and news delivery. In Slovakia, online journalists do not enjoy the same legal protection as print journalists. Court rulings on Internet content have favored politicians over the press. In Poland, judges demand quick removal of offensive online content; defamation is subject to criminal prosecution.
Transparency needs to be increased throughout Central Europe. Current legislation is vague enough to allow government agencies to refuse freedom-of-information requests on the basis of claims of commercial confidentiality or privacy concerns.
Hungary is the region’s single worst performer. In 2010, its right-wing government adopted media legislation that requires all news organizations to register with the state and stipulates that the stories they report should be “balanced,” of “relevance to the citizens of Hungary,” and “respect[ful of] human dignity.” The law also weakened the protection of journalists’ sources. Penalties for violating the rules include fines, suspension, or shutdowns.
The European Commission, the Council of Europe, and press watchdog groups were unanimous in criticizing the legislation, but the Hungarian government persists in its media crackdown. A new criminal code leaves room for abuse of authority, including the possibility of filtering online content. Last fall, the government attempted to introduce an “Internet tax” of €0.50 euros ($0.60) per gigabyte, the moral equivalent of a tax on reading a book or conversing with a friend. After more than 100,000 protesters gathered in Budapest, the proposal was withdrawn – at least for now.
These ex-communist countries have a unique opportunity to become global leaders in Internet freedom. At the International Telecommunications Union summit in Dubai in December 2012, Michał Boni, a former Polish minister of administration and digitization, played an important role in blocking efforts to impose government controls on Internet use. And yet, in the meantime, Poland’s foreign ministry has not made Internet freedom a priority. Unlike the Czech Republic, for example, Poland still has not joined the Freedom Online Coalition.
Two decades ago, the people of Central Europe rose up to bring down secretive, authoritarian governments. Today, the region’s ex-communist countries have made considerable progress. But much hard work remains to be done. A good place to start would be to lead the fight for Internet freedom.