Later I will take a more analytical look at the opposition to ACTA, but having attended the protest in Berlin on Saturday last it feels important to take note of what an unprecedented success it was. Similar dynamics are in play elswhere and understanding them is going to take some dowsing as well as reason, so a few observations on the mood appear pertinent.
The Long March of the Internetz
On Saturday I took part in the demonstration against the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in Berlin, a Treaty which has not yet been either signed or ratified by Germany. In advance my guess was that the numbers would be modest, a couple of hundred maybe. I had noticed the demonstrations in Poland attract tens of thousands and turn tumultuous in the city of Kielce, but wrongly interpreted it as a Polish particularity, perhaps fueled by the thusfar successful campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act in the US together with the especially blatant flouting of any impression of democracy in Poland’s adhesion process.
In any case the size of the crowd amassed at Neptunbrunnen left me aghast, easily ten thousand. Without an aerial photograph it is difficult to convey the scale of the crowd but this video gives some idea. The video-still below is my own and shows about a quarter of the crowd.
What was striking about the composition of those present was the large proportion of teenagers and, interestingly, many young women; the Pirate Party, who have been ridiculed for their atrocious gender imbalance, will have glimpsed some potential for salvation… Other than a few knots of guys who looked like they could be in a German version of the “IT Crowd”, those braving temperatures of -8 degrees were an unexpectedly heterogeneous lot, defying the tendency of protests in Berlin to attract only the usual suspects.
Since the anti-SOPA blackout ACTA has garnered attention that must make its proponents very concerned, up until recently it seemed destined to roll through amidst the disinterested complacency which usually accompanies the ‘creative works’ of the bureaucracy. The raid on Megaupload, the rejection of an appeal application in the Pirate Bay case, and the ongoing legal racket demanding ‘compensation’ from German computer users accused of file-sharing, cumulatively provided ample grounds that any treaty touching on copyright was grounds for concern.
Anonymous helped bring the thunder to the online propaganda, and V masks to the party on the street, as ever an admixture between circus, mischief and ambivalent gravitas that is ‘their’ hallmark. In addition to denizens of online communities, the Chaos Computer Club and Occupy Berlin, the protest was supported by several political parties: Pirates, Greens and the Left (Die Linke), and even the youth wing of the SPD. Although the PP’s result in the last city elections was almost incredible, this is the first time there has been a mass mobilisation around the issue at its core. But those on the streets were by no means all PP supporters, and other Parties support for the protest suggests the reverberation of the vote is making an impact: the PP will not be left the copyright field to themselves.
After speeches by a cabaret artist, a wikimedian, and some digital civil rights activists, it was time to hit the bricks. Somehow at the moment of departure two banners ended at the front, the first one, modest in size, stated: “Save Europe from ACTA” and was branded with the website of the clicktivists, Avaaz. Behind was a larger block with a more contestational message: “Property is Still Theft!” This was borne by a rather large group of left-libertarian teenagers (Out of Control?), and they remained at the head of the demonstration all afternoon chanting “Liberty, Liberty, Total anarchy!”, “We want… to copy… everything!” and “State, Nation, ACTA – Shit!” . post-nationalism, here we come?!
The route was selected to pass by the HQ of the pharma lobby and the national affiliate of the IFPI (music industry). Initial attempts to get to the latter were blocked by police and a gentle fracas ensued. Subsequently the second half of the crowd was allowed to reach the IFPI office, where a speech (by a member of the intriguingly named Hedonist International) lambasted the music majors for both encroaching on users’ online freedom and siphoning off the lion’s share of revenues for themselves, rather than the artists they purport to support.
Obviously overwhelmed by the numbers, neither organisers nor police were adequtely prepared; for the former this meant that the speeches were not heard from where I was positioned; for the latter it was a bigger problem as the crowd started to slip out of control, perodically charging ahead, gleefully, on the count of three, as if determined to get the forces of order out of breath.
Die Fahrt ins Blaue, or, Just for Lulz
At Hausvogteilplatz – official end-point of the procession- the advance section of the crowd found itself blocked from proceeding towards the Foreign Ministry. A large group decided not to linger, descending instead en masse into the subway station, pursued by harried riot police. Re-emerging five minutes later after some antics on the platform, they took off on an impromptu wildcat march, shutting down a major boulevard, and breaching the enclosures around an enormous building site to invent an unmapped route to the museum district before returning, panting, to Alexanderplatz. All, of course, accompanied by a continuous chants of “ACTA – Scheisse!”, and pursued by police. There was however no confrontation, instead it was like a game, the city as funpark, and a brisk wander attentuates the effect of icy temperatures.
Further speeches (in German) were held at Hausvogteilplatz, which might tempt a comparative assessment of the relative efficacy of sober pronouncements and instinctual creative chaos, but this doesn’t seem particularly germane as no contradiction materialised between the different styles. Stephan Urbach spoke of how the net was built on the sharing of data, its remixing, and further redistribution thereafter. A rave then broke out amongst a part of the crowd. Elsewhere in Germany the demonstrations ranged from massive in Munich and Hamburg to just ‘very big’ in others such as Frankfurt, Nuremburg, Cologne and numerous others. Similar gatherings took place all over the continent.
In Europe the last obstacle to the formal passage of the Treaty is the approval of the European Parliament, anticipated to climax in early summer. Current president of the EP is Martin Schulz, who has already started making disapproving noises about the treaty. If events of the last month are any guide, the outcome may not be as certain as was thought. And irrespective of the fate of ACTA itself, this campaign is going to make the introduction of further copyright enforcement measures a matter of heated public contention in the future.
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