Proud Poland: A Pro Digital Power Haunted by Nationalist Nightmares

Photo: Mateusz MORAWIECKI (Prime Minister, Minister for Digital Affairs, Poland). Credit: European Union.
Photo: Mateusz MORAWIECKI (Prime Minister, Minister for Digital Affairs, Poland). Credit: European Union.

July 12, 2022

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Often at odds with Brussels, Poland is uncomfortable with the European Union’s (EU’s) regulatory push to clamp down on the digital economy.

Poland is pro-digital, supporting the digitization of public services and innovative companies. It favors light-touch regulation to big digital platforms, placing it among the minority free-market minnows such as Estonia.

At the same time, Poland’s Law and Justice government, in power since 2015, takes a traditional position on religious and social issues.1 The government’s stance on cultural issues is divisive within Polish society and often puts Warsaw at odds with Brussels on content moderation, artificial intelligence (AI), and other key digital dossiers.

DIGITAL PERFORMANCE

In Poland, 90% of households enjoyed Internet access in 2020 (for broadband Internet, the figure was 67.7%), with fixed-line Internet costing an average of $16 per month.2 Coverage is uneven: 4.5 million Poles have never used the Internet, according to a report by Federacji Konsumentów, Poland’s Consumer Federation.3 The country has taken steps to counter digital exclusion. The National Broadband Plan — adopted in 2014 and updated in 2020 — envisages that every household in Poland will have access to the Internet with a speed of at least 100 megabytes per second (MB/s) by 2025.4

Large US companies run Poland’s most-visited websites.5 Google counted 27 million real users and an online reach of 94% in October 2020, with Facebook and YouTube ranking second and third respectively. YouTube, Facebook and its Messenger app, Instagram, and WhatsApp are the most popular social media platforms.6

Despite the entrance of Amazon, Poland’s own Internet giant, Allegro, dominates e-commerce.7 In October 2021, Allegro’s website and app counted more than 21 million users, compared to 5.6 million for Amazon in Poland (amazon.pl and other country versions).8 In recent years, a growing percentage of Poles have begun to  shop online, a trend supported by the pandemic.9 The European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) shows that the average Pole buys more online than the average German. Today, the e-commerce market in Poland is worth an estimated PLN 100 billion ($25 billion), up from PLN 70 billion before the pandemic and PLN 27 billion in 2016.10

Investment in Polish venture capital is growing, too. In 2020, it amounted to €477 million ($540 million), an increase of 70% compared to the previous year.11 Public-private capital accounted for 62% of financing, while 48% of the total value of transactions came from international funds.

Cybersecurity represents a major concern, not only in relation to attacks attributed to Russia, but also to the perceived threat from China.12 Warsaw has urged NATO allies to coordinate against Chinese cybersecurity challenges.13 In its Cybersecurity Strategy for 2019-2024, the government seeks to bolster the country’s resistance to cyberthreats while “guaranteeing the right to privacy and maintaining a free and open Internet.”14

This tension between digital threat and digital opportunity lies at the heart of Poland’s digital policy and how it plays out in the country’s relations with the EU.

Photo: Mateusz Morawiecki hosts European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton. Credit: Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland via Twitter.

VIEWS ON EU DIGITAL POLICY

Warsaw views digital as an opportunity for the Polish economy and is skeptical about imposing restrictions on online marketplaces and social media. But Poland punches below its potential weight in pursuing free-market, pro-US policies. Its attacks on EU democratic norms undercut its leverage.

Warsaw’s pro-digital attitude is perhaps most visible in the government’s approach to supporting artificial intelligence (AI), and its skepticism about potential EU-imposed restrictions. The country’s 2020 AI policy paper emphasizes the economic benefits of introducing AI in priority sectors of the Polish economy, which the paper estimates at around 2.65% of the gross domestic product (GDP). The paper assigns the need for greater Polish involvement in the development of the moral dimensions of AI.15 “It is also crucial that the AI solutions created always serve people, putting their dignity and rights first. That is why it is so important that the Polish voice continues to be heard in the global debate on the ethics of artificial intelligence and how intelligent or autonomous agents operate,” the paper states.

Yet Warsaw cannot go it alone when it comes to AI and tech more generally. For Poland to become globally competitive, it needs to cooperate broadly with its international partners, especially EU countries, the US, Japan, and NATO members, the policy paper argues. At the EU level, this includes ensuring that Polish entities participate in the EU’s programs (such as Digital Europe, Horizon Europe, and the Innovation Council) as much as possible. More broadly, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has declared Poland’s support for technological, scientific, and regulatory cooperation between like-minded countries.16

On the EU’s digital policy, Poland has been broadly supportive of efforts to deepen the single market for digital services — with its own addendums, particularly when it came to what it perceives as censorship of right-wing views. A government non-paper related to the recently finalized EU rules governing digital platforms, the Digital Services Act (DSA), argued that the “time has come to review provisions relating to the removal of illegal content from the Internet and to content moderation by intermediary service providers.”17

Specifically, Warsaw wanted mechanisms for users that prevent content from being removed or blocked “without justification,” and for users to obtain a right to appeal a platform’s decision to block or remove uploaded content. In practice, the focus has been on the Law and Justice government’s opposition to the blocking of nationalist content on social media.

Photo: Efforts of the digitization of the Prime Minister in Poland. Credit: @CyfryzacjaKPRM via Twitter.

DIGITAL POLICY

Poland’s domestic digital policy contains a paradox. On the one hand, the Law and Justice government headed by Morawiecki since 2017 has been actively pro-digital, supporting the digitization of the public sector and tech start-ups. On the other hand, the government has sought to use the digital sphere to further its own agenda — when it comes to the regulation of social media content and government use of spyware — which has become a further source of tension with Brussels.

Digitization has been viewed as powering Poland’s economic development. Since Poland shook off the shackles of communism, traditional industry has driven the country’s remarkable development. Google and other Big Tech firms already have located important back offices in the country and Amazon is building significant warehouse space. In its report on Poland, McKinsey & Company says that “digitization and converging toward a tech-driven economy have a big potential to unlock the new growth engine that Poland urgently requires.”18

The Morawiecki government agrees. In addition to serving as prime minister, Morawiecki is minister of digital affairs — a sign of the importance that he assigns to the sector.19 His government has sought to support digital start-ups, for example, through the Start in Poland program for domestic and foreign companies. It not only offers financing and support but seeks to promote “positive changes in legislation” and “the development of the entire innovation ecosystem.”20

The GovTech Polska program, run by the prime minister’s office, attempts to build bridges between the public sector and innovators.21 Other projects include developing the gov.pl portal, which seeks to build a unified information technology (IT) system for the public administration.22 Primarily financed by EU funds, the project is part of the Digital Poland Operational Program.23 Data illustrates that the percentage of Poles accessing public services online is increasing year by year.9 A particular area of progress is healthcare, where the pandemic has accelerated digitization.24

Yet the Morawiecki government’s broadly open approach to digital has created tensions with the EU on two issues.

The first issue is online freedom of speech. The Law and Justice government has taken on the role of the defender of freedom of speech against what it sees as digital censorship. When Facebook banned the nationalist opposition party Confederation in January 2022, the government rushed to its political rival’s defense.25 “Digital censorship is a powerful threat to democracy today,” Morawiecki wrote on his Facebook page.26 The government went so far as to link the incident to the wider debate on the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which aims to toughen the responsibilities for platforms to deal with illegal content.27

Poland has proposed its own tough platform liability proposals. In January 2021, the Ministry of Justice presented a draft law on freedom of speech on social media.28 It calls for fining social media networks up to PLN 50 million ($13.4 million) for failing to restore deleted posts or accounts. The ministry presented it as “a response to the EU regulation” and “one of the first legal acts in the European Union protecting the freedom of speech.”29

The second issue is surveillance — in particular, the government’s previous use of spyware to monitor its political opponents. In January 2022, Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice’s chairman, admitted in an interview that Poland was in possession of Pegasus, the Israeli spyware which has been blacklisted in the United States.30 In January 2022, according to the University of Toronto’s nonprofit Citizen Lab, an opposition senator’s phone was hacked 33 times ahead of the elections, between April 26, 2019, and October 23, 2019.31 Amnesty International independently confirmed the hacking.32 These revelations provoked a political uproar. Opposition leaders demanded a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the government’s use of Pegasus. Voters expect explanations, too: according to a poll, almost two-thirds of respondents say that the Polish special services’ use of the Pegasus surveillance needs to be clarified.33

Both issues place the Polish government on a potential collision course with its European partners amid the debate on the proposed EU rules governing digital platforms, the DSA, and calls — in the EU and beyond — to crack down on governments’ illegal use of spyware. While recognizing the Polish government’s efforts to support the digital economy and the digitization of public services, the outlook is one of further tension between Warsaw and its European partners over digital.

INTRODUCTION

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