Central Europe’s Digital Freedom Struggle

PRAGUE – A quarter-century ago, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain rose, the people of Central Europe chose capitalism over communism and democracy over dictatorship. Today, however, citizens of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – the region's four ex-communist countries – are turning in a disappointingly mixed performance when it comes to promoting and protecting Internet freedom.

A recent study in these four countries by our organizations shows that all of them can – and should – play a powerful role in promoting the free flow of information. But much needs to be improved. The Czech Republic has a strong record of supporting free expression, curbing surveillance, and promoting transparency, but Hungary persecutes bloggers and publishers with heavy fines and other sanctions. Poland and Slovakia fall somewhere in between.

The four countries are poised to benefit greatly from the new digital world. Each has the prerequisites for open and lively online communities: decent Internet penetration and democratic, plural political systems. The region's “high level of mathematical education, low overheads, and a globalized, westernized young generation makes for a heady and successful mix," the Financial Times recently reported.

Indeed, the FT's “New Europe 100" list of innovators from Central and Eastern Europe includes many examples of Internet success stories. There is “a Hungarian doctor who has created a medical advice website driven by social media, a team of Polish students who have built an award-winning robot that could operate on Mars, and a Slovak inventor of a flying car."