Internet censorship efforts in Spain halted by opposition

A modified dollar bill from the Sindegate campaign.

While the United States government debates the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Spanish Internet activists have won a small victory against the threat of censorship on the web. If the proposed Sinde Law had been approved in Spain on December 2, the government would have won the power to shut down websites that offer downloads and streaming of digital content under copyright. But ultimately, the lame-duck, left-wing party PSOE kept the law from passing because of an internal debate created by a two-year long mobilization that was the prelude of the occupation-based May 15 movement.

Since 2008, Spain has aroused the concern of the U.S. government on issues of piracy and intellectual property rights, as is reflected in that year’s Special 301 Report:

The United States is concerned by the Spanish government’s inadequate efforts to address the growing problem of Internet piracy, described by U.S. copyright industries as one of the worst in Europe. … The United States will continue to work closely with Spain to address these IPR enforcement issues during the next year.

Several leaks released by Wikileaks last December show how the U.S. government prepared a plan to defend the interests of its cultural industries in Spain before the end of the PSOE’s legislature in 2012.

U.S. pressure soon showed results. At the end of 2009, the first news about the issue came with the Sustainable Economy Law, which was presented by the PSOE as the answer to the economic problems of Spain. Buried in its 200 pages of text was, as one of more than fifty final provisions, a new regulation for the “protection of intellectual property in the scope of the information society.” This rule became known as the “Sinde Law,” after Ángeles González-Sinde, the minister of culture and its main driving force. The U.S. pressure seemed to be working, reinforced by Spain’s own Coalition of Creators and Content Industries—known as The Coalition—which presented a list of 200 websites that “must be closed urgently” to the Ministry of Culture.

People mobilized quickly. Just a few days after the release of the preliminary bill, 40 journalists, bloggers and other Internet professionals created a manifesto against the Sinde Law. The manifesto, “In Defense of Human Rights on the Internet,” gained 100,000 supporters in just three days, and the hashtag #manifiesto became a trending topic. More than 700 articles about the issue were published in print and digital media. Soon, the Ministry of Culture invited 14 people associated with the manifesto to have a urgent meeting with González-Sinde. The meeting was broadcast live on Twitter, but it had no result. The next day, on December 4, there were several demonstrations in the main Spanish cities.

Actions against the Sinde Law continued with the creation of the “La Lista de Sinde” (“Sinde’s List”) campaign in response to the censorship committee proposed by the law. The campaign, created by the group Hacktivistas, invited web managers to “incriminate themselves” for sharing culture. By March, 2010, the Hacktivistas handed over to the Ministry of Culture a list of 1,000 websites.

Organizing continued throughout 2010 with demonstrations summoned by the Spanish Pirate Party and with mass mailing to their representatives until December 21, when the Sinde Law was voted on in Congress. Around that time, too, Anonymous appeared in the Spanish scene, as an organization that later would later join Democracia Real Ya and the May 15 movement with attacks on the websites of PSOE, SGAE (an organization of artists comparable to ASCAP in the U.S.) as well as the Ministry of Culture. The Hacktivistas launched campaigns including Sindegate (to spread information about the Sinde Law and the role of U.S. in its creation) and Adopt a Nationalist (inviting people to ask their representatives to reject the law and stop its approval in Congress). Popular streaming and downloading websites showed their opposition to the law by changing their homepages to a black screen with protest messages.

The law was rejected in Congress, but it went to the Senate, where it would be voted on in February of 2011, thanks an agreement among various political parties.

On the occasion of the Goya Awards, the Spanish Oscars, Anonymous organized Operation Goya, which gathered 300 people in Guy Fawkes masks who booed the minister of culture and several artists, while applauding Alex de la Iglesia, president of the Spanish Film Academy. De la Iglesia, a popular Spanish filmmaker, made public his opposition to the Sinde Law on Twitter, and announced his resignation from the Academy, as well as that of his fellow director Santiago Segura.

The protest around the Sinde Law also coincided with the creation of #Nolesvotes (#Don’tvoteforthem). This movement, closely tied with May 15, started as a hashtag on Twitter this past February during the Senate’s vote on the Sinde Law, and it became a trending topic in Spain. Behind the hashtag were people such as David Bravo, known for his defense of Internet freedom and one of the lawyers who supported the May 15 movement; Ricardo Gallo, creator of Menéame, a popular Spanish website similar to Digg; and Enrique Dans, an IT expert and collaborator with major Spanish news organizations, including El País and El Mundo.

Despite the protest, though, the Sinde Law was approved by the Senate and came back to the Congress, where it was approved with some changes, but without creating a regulation to put it into practice. The hashtag #Nolesvotes then became a campaign against the political parties that supported it, which were facing regional elections of May, and it denounced the corruption of the Spanish politicians with a map that became very popular on the Internet.

More than 80 percent of Spaniards opposed the law, according to polls at the time. Groups such as No to the Sinde Law organized campaigns to collect signatures on petitions against it. Meanwhile, the Hacktivistas created a “Manual de Desobediencia a la Ley Sinde,” with instructions on how to break a censorship law, with the help of the underground publishing house Traficantes de Sueños and the alternative journal Diagonal. Subsequently, they released another guide, “Música, cine y televisión legal, libre y gratuita para madres y profesoras” (“Legal, free and open music, films and TV for mothers and teachers”). Within a few hours, more than 50,000 people downloaded it.

Several more protests, together with the close elections in May and November, delayed the law’s implementation even further. The minister of culture announced that the regulation would be approved before the November election, but Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the presidential candidate of PSOE, gave the order to not push this issue in order not to loose even more popularity while facing the national election.

Just after last month’s election, the cabinet announced that it would vote on implementing the Sinde Law. December 2, two years after the manifesto against the Sinde Law was first released, would be the day that it became a reality. The hashtags #redresiste (#resistnetwork) and #leysindeno (#notosindelaw) were trending topics that morning, and a reissue of the original 2009 manifesto started circulating online.

The popular pressure worked. Despite the support of the right-wing Partido Popular for the Sinde Law, the PSOE ultimately didn’t let it pass. Its passage “would be the end of the PSOE,” according to the minister of public works, a senior member of the party.

The threat of an internal crisis in the PSOE led its government to decide not to approve a law opposed by the majority of Spanish people. Now, after last month’s elections, the PSOE has left the winning Partido Popular holding a screaming child. The cyberactivists won a battle, but the war against the Sinde Law is not finished.

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