Internet activism, Czech-style

Internet activism, Czech-style: By Mark Schapiro. The Communists are yesterday's target -- today, it's the phone company's Net-access rate hikes.

Published December 8, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- As their parents hit the streets a decade ago to protest Communist rule, the children of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution were hitting puberty. Now, this generation, bred on the border-crashing irreverence of the Internet, is finding a new target, a successor to the monolithic force the Communist Party once represented for their parents: the phone company.

Over the past three weeks, a campaign of computer users and Internet providers has sent thousands of young Czechs into the streets to protest an effort by SPT Telecom -- which holds a government-sanctioned phone monopoly in the Czech Republic until 2000 -- to raise its rates for local dial-ups by as much as 62 percent.

"That would just kill Internet users and providers in this country," says Ivo Lukacovic, 24, founder of the country's largest search engine, a sort of Czech Yahoo, and one of the principle organizers of the campaign.

The protests kicked off on Nov. 18, when more than 1,000 of the country's leading Web sites went dark for 24 hours, with nothing but a bright yellow and blue banner across their opening page stating the group's name and slogan, Internet Against Monopoly (in Czech, Internet proti monopolu). The organizers claim, according to unofficial figures supplied by local switching stations, that there was also a 20-30 percent drop in local telephone usage on that day. Telecom spokeswoman Dana Dvorakova says the drop-off in phone use was "about 4 percent."

On the same day, protesters organized rallies in Prague and Brno. In Prague, 2,500 people gathered across the street from Telecom's Soviet-style headquarters and delivered to a company vice president a three-foot-long, papier mbchi yellow spider -- their symbol for the monopoly -- devouring a computer keyboard. To drive the point home, the demonstrators tied themselves by the neck with rope, creating an enormous walking spider web.

In Brno that day, 2,000 people chanted slogans adapted to the post-revolutionary dialectic: "Down with TeleCommunism!" and "From Stalin to TeleCommunism!" The Brno group displayed a particularly pungent sense of humor: Demonstrators brought colored scarves to the rally and used them to transmit, semaphore style, the company's slogan: "Communication is the basis of understanding."

"We wanted to show that we were capable of sending them back their own message without using the telephone," gleefully commented one of the Brno organizers, 19-year-old Michal Valasek. In his second year of a program in information studies at Masaryk University, Valasek wears a black T-shirt and has thick black hair past his shoulders, with nubs of acne across his face. He owns a local Internet server and works as a programmer and Web designer. Other than his halting English (he was translated by his 18-year-old girlfriend, whose T-shirt sported the campaign's bright yellow logo reading, "Price Increase! Boycott!"), he would be right at home in a UC-Berkeley computer lab.

Valasek was 10 years old when the revolution broke out, and barely aware even
of the existence of computers. "During previous times," he says, "we could
not travel, could not go to England, to the United States, anywhere in the
West. The Internet gives us the chance now to learn from these places." In
two days, Valasek and a group of other activists -- a musician, an
economist and another programmer -- collected 3,500 signatures on a
petition demanding lower rates.

Nationwide, Internet Against Monopoly collected 104,802 signatures
demanding a rate reduction. Most of the signatures, representing more than
1 percent of the Czech Republic's population of 10 million, were gathered
via the Internet. The group's Web site -- which includes an
English-language translation of its demands -- became the most popular
destination in the short history of the Czech Web, logging more than
100,000 hits in the first day of the boycott.

Until 1989 in then-Czechoslovakia, computers were limited to
universities -- even there, access was sharply limited -- and the Net
barely existed. In the nine years since the revolution, the use of
computers and the Internet has skyrocketed. Today, some 300,000 to 400,000
people have regular access to the Net, according to research by the
brokerage house Patria Finance. Another 100,000 have home computers but are
not yet wired. Every major Czech business has a Web site, and e-mail usage
is widespread. Prague boasts several cyber-cafes -- hubs for
avant-gardists, techies and travelers -- and at least half a dozen glossy
Internet magazines, in addition to Webzines that take on everything from
the country's media scene to anarchist politics to porn.

The proposed rate hike strikes directly at this increasingly lively
Internet scene, according to Ondre Neff, a bestselling science-fiction
writer and editor of the nation's biggest Webzine, a daily called Invisible Dog -- which combines
spicy political, cultural and media reporting with news about the Internet.

"It's gangsterism," says Neff, 57, the grand old man of the movement,
easily twice the age of the rest of the country's computer pioneers. Neff's
latest book, "Blackout," conjures a world in which the country is plunged
back into the Middle Ages after a permanent collapse of the electrical
system. The petition he helped write evokes, with some considerable poetic
license, the apocalyptic implications of cutting people off from the
Internet. "We warn against this trend," the petition reads, "as it would
result in being behind the times, in stagnation in the industrial
revolution age instead of proceeding to the information revolution age ...
We consider it an aggression against one of the world's most progressive
forms of communication."

Existing rates are already among the highest in Europe. Access calls
cost 2.4 crowns (about eight cents) every three minutes; the proposed increase
would have jumped that to 2.6 crowns for two minutes. (European users
rarely are offered the flat-rate pricing that so benefits U.S. Net users.)
Assuming one hour online per day, the average Czech Internet user already
faces a monthly bill of around 2,000 crowns ($65) a month -- a significant
expense in a country with a per capita income of just $450 a month. Two
days before announcing the price rise, Telecom announced a 19-percent rise
in its revenues for the year.

Lukacovic says that the Internet has become a critical part of the
country's democratic development, offering voices and perspectives
independent of the mass media, which is frequently tied to corporate and
government interests -- a sign, if nothing else, that the post-Communist
Czech Republic is becoming much like other Western countries. Immediately
following Telecom's announcement of rate increases in late October, for
example, the company launched its largest ad campaign to date, involving TV
commercials and two-page spreads in many of the country's leading
newspapers and magazines. Lovacovic claims that coverage of the boycott by
many recipients of the company's largesse was either nonexistent or highly

The best reporting on the financial affairs of Telecom was,
unsurprisingly, on the Net itself. Invisible Dog published confidential
documents outlining the company's secret agreement with the government.
That agreement outlines an understanding in which the government, which
owns 51 percent of Telecom, agreed not to exercise its majority rights, and
in fact ceded a majority of board seats to its private partner -- a
Dutch-Swiss telecommunications giant called TelSource, which owns 27
percent of the company (the remainder is owned by holding companies and
Czech citizens issued privatization vouchers). In return for a monopoly,
TelSource agreed to invest millions of dollars in improving the Czech
infrastructure for telecommunications -- which the Internet Against
Monopoly protesters say it has not done.

Internet Against Monopoly is asking for a different rate structure for
voice and data transmissions, proposing a flat 500-crown (about $16)
monthly fee for unlimited use of the Internet (an amount that currently
buys about four hours). But the campaign quickly expanded beyond the phone
rates to a demand for an early end to TelSource's monopoly and increased
competition as a means of lowering phone rates; many are now demanding an
auditing of the company's books. "The train has left the station and we
don't want to stop now," says Valasek.

The scope of support for the boycott took everyone by surprise and
forced the company to react. "Our simple comment," says Telecom spokeswoman Dvorakova, "is that the boycott showed how important a
service the Internet is for the future. We take this as a message from our

Last week, Telecom released a new rate schedule, dubbed Internet 99,
that slightly lowers nighttime rates but adds a new wrinkle: a set-up fee
for each dial-up, whether or not a connection is interrupted. Such broken
connections are frequent here -- in some offices it only takes the rumble
of a nearby street tram to cut Internet connections.

Internet Against Monopoly is planning further protests if the company
does not withdraw the set-up fee. Others, like Valasek and more radical
members of the group based in Brno, want everyone's phone rates lowered,
not just those of Internet users. The Social Democratic government -- which
has accused TelSource of illicit campaign contributions to its Civic
Democratic Party predecessors, who awarded TelSource the contract in 1995
-- has promised to raise the issue of the company's monopoly obligations at
a board meeting on Dec. 16.

It has taken only nine years, but kids like Michal Valasek understand
precisely the reason for the company's quick, at least partial,
capitulation: "They spent millions of crowns on an ad campaign for their
image, and we've just hurt their image. That's the reason they're talking
to us," he says.

The world of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was defined by the constraints
of a closed system that infused every aspect of life. For that revolution's
kids, whose view of the world is shaped by a profusion of communications
technology unimaginable back during the low-tech Communist era, the
commissars of the phone company seem a natural target -- a monopoly power
in what was supposed to be a free and honest market.

When 24-year-old Lukacovic stood on the Telecom steps denouncing the
company's rates, he recalled a voice echoing in his ear -- that of Vaclav
Maly, a priest and behind-the-scenes leader of the marches on Wenceslas
Square in 1989. Lukacovic was 14 then, a young kid swept along by the historic
forces of the moment.

"During the revolution, I was down in the crowd," he recalls. "Last
week, I was up in front of it. I remembered how Maly spoke, clearly and
slowly. It was necessary to prevent people from getting too emotional,
because it's easy to get people angry and hard to settle them down."

In 1989, no one wanted an act of violent outrage to provide the
slightest excuse for a brutal counterattack by the police. And though the
stakes today are so obviously different, Lukacovic similarly didn't want
anyone to disrupt the scene of diligent Internet users attacking the object
of their antagonism with humor and public pressure. Not a stone was thrown
that day; the police looked on quietly. And this high-tech generation's own
single-party system is beginning to respond.

By Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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