Poland: pro-digital power plagued by nationalism

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Poland’s domestic digital policy contains a paradox. On the one hand, the Law and Justice government led by Morawiecki since 2017 is actively pro-digital and supports the digitization of the public sector and tech start-ups. On the other hand, the government has tried to use the digital sphere to advance its own agenda – when it comes to regulating social media content and state use of spyware – which has become another source of tension with Brussels.

Digitization is considered to be the engine of Poland’s economic development. Ever since Poland shook off the shackles of communism, traditional industry has fueled the country’s remarkable development. Google and other big tech companies already have important back offices in the country, and Amazon is building significant warehouse space. In its report on Poland, McKinsey & Company says that “digitalization and convergence towards a technology-driven economy have great potential to unleash the new engine of growth that Poland desperately needs”.

The Morawiecki government agrees. Morawiecki is not only prime minister, but also minister for digital affairs – a sign of the importance he attaches to the industry. His government has tried to support digital start-ups, for example through the Start in Poland program for domestic and foreign companies. In addition to providing funding and support, it wants to promote “positive changes in the law” and “the development of the entire innovation ecosystem”.

The GovTech Polska program, run by the Prime Minister’s Office, seeks to build bridges between the public sector and innovators. Other projects include the development of the gov.pl portal, which aims to build a unified information technology (IT) system for public administration. The project, financed mainly from EU funds, is part of the Operational Program Digital Poland. The data shows that the percentage of Poles accessing public services online is increasing every year. One particular area of ​​progress is healthcare, where the pandemic has accelerated digitization.

However, the Morawiecki government’s largely open approach to digitization has led to tensions with the EU on two points.

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

Poland has presented its own tough platform liability proposals. In January 2021, the Justice Department introduced a bill on freedom of expression on social media. It is demanding a fine of up to PLN 50 million ($13.4 million) for social networks if they fail to restore deleted posts or accounts. The ministry presented it as “a response to the EU regulation” and “one of the first pieces of legislation in the European Union to protect freedom of expression”.

The second problem is surveillance – specifically the government’s past use of spyware to monitor its political opponents. In January 2022, Law and Justice Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński admitted in an interview that Poland was in possession of Pegasus, the Israeli spyware blacklisted in the United States. In January 2022, between April 26, 2019 and October 23, 2019, an opposition senator’s phone was hacked 33 times before the election, according to the University of Toronto nonprofit Citizen Lab. Amnesty International has independently confirmed the hacking. These revelations sparked a political uproar. Opposition leaders have called for a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the government’s use of Pegasus. Voters also expect explanations: According to a survey, almost two-thirds of respondents say that the use of Pegasus surveillance by the Polish secret services needs to be clarified.

Both issues put the Polish government on a possible collision course with its European partners amid the debate over proposed EU rules for digital platforms, the DSA, and call for a crackdown on governments’ illegal use of spyware in the EU and beyond to proceed. While recognizing the Polish government’s efforts to support the digital economy and digitization of public services, the prospect of further tensions between Warsaw and its European partners over digitization is on the horizon.

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