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For some people, religion is their passion, and for other is football. For former European Commission employee Leina Meštrović, her religion is – the Internet. Like a missionary with passionate zeal, she left her career in the European capital to start defending digital rights. Having founded the “DIgital DemoCroatia,” she invested all her resources; physical, mental and financial to the cause of free internet access in Croatia.

“For me, the internet is an online field of collective intelligence that allows people to reach a higher evolutionary level,” said Meštrović. “At that level, we can freely express and share our knowledge, achieve collective intelligence and eliminate ignorance,” she added, emphasizing that the Internet is very emotional subject for her.

Even after a short conversation, it is evident that this is a knowledgeable, intelligent person with a high level of energy and passion, whose eyes shine at every mention of digital rights, open access, and Internet freedom.

Leina has Masters degree’s in the fields of psychology, communications, and sociology. After five years of engagement in the General Directorate for Translation at the European Commission, she took a radical turn in her life – leaving her career in Brussels and returning to Zagreb to start a lonely fight.

Her activist zeal for digital rights started in 2012., during the ACTA negotiations. When on the 4th of July of that same year the European Parliament failed to reach an agreement, Meštrović decided to send flowers to the MEP’s who made (in her opinion) the only correct decision.

Realizing that the European Union had almost passed a directive to limit the right to freedom of speech and access to information, she decided to engage more directly in the field of digital rights.

The Digital Agenda, which in the meantime came into force, was an excellent political platform for securing the freedom of the Internet. But the turning point in her life came about at the beginning of September 2016, when the first version of the copyright directive was presented as the new ACTA 2.0. “I was shocked by the fact that the same system that brought forward the Digital Agenda shortly after delivers what was its diametric opposite.”

The entire consultation process about copyright reform was extraordinarily democratic and participative. All stakeholders: entrepreneurs, civil society, academia, creators, writers, publishers, and journalists were involved in the process. However, in the final version, only the proposals of the most prominent interest groups, mostly offline publishers, and big music industry lobbyists were forwarded as an EU solution for copyright in the digital age.

“For five years I’ve worked for the European Commission, and I do not consider myself naive. I know how politics work, but this was for me the final drop that overflowed the glass because it did not allow any other actors any chance to express their views” – she said. Access to the legislative process in the European Union, if reserved only for the most powerful and wealthiest actors is not sufficiently democratic because it does not represent the interests of the entire community, just a small self-interest group.

Unlike large companies that have one decision-making center, one interest and a lot of financial resources, citizens, artists, and other actors cannot compete with their already established structure, and they make up the majority of European society. That is precisely why, Meštrović believes, lobbying should either be systematically enshrined for everyone by investing in a “citizens lobby” or should be abolished entirely.

I would never embark on this path if not for its unforeseeable consequences for the whole society,” Mestrovic said.

After a series of setbacks, which almost prompted her to give up, one of her digital rights colleagues said that every independent political activism attempt was like “trying to build a house without knowing anything about masonry.” By recognizing the limits of her power, she decided to connect more with European digital rights organizations.

“I rely on my work on the European civil society organizations – European Digital Rights (EDRi) and the office of MEP Julia Reda; our NGO’s have no adequate infrastructure, they have too little funds and too many problems.”

According to her, as well as other open access advocates, the whole concept of the Internet, was initially conceived on the principle of openness and collaboration of all stakeholders. Internet founders, the popularly-known Internet Illuminati gave their inventions to humanity as an open source contribution, emphasizing that its main feature is its availability to everyone – free of charge.

Activists believe that humankind today would be significantly different and poorer if the Illuminati kept their invention to profit from it personally. That is why they consider it unfair that others should benefit from their creativity and to stop people from using it freely.

“I know that the internet is not perfect and that it has a lot of problems. But if we have diabetes, arthritis, and sclerosis, we do not need cancer as well, and this directive in its current version is a carcinogen” she said.

According to her, right to the internet is a human right and as such is described in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Namely, Article 19 which emphasizes that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes the right to freedom to seek, receive and disseminate information by any medium, regardless of boundaries.

It is precisely due to this definition, according to activists, that the internet is defined as a fundamental human right, even though this Declaration was written before the invention of the Internet. Therefore, the current version of the proposed EU Copyright directive poses a significant danger to society as a whole.

Article 13 of the controversial proposal advocates the implementation of filters whose primary task would be to intercept protected copyright content across the Internet and to remove those that are not licensed. The danger of such filters, stresses Mestrovic, lies in the fact that they are neither accurate nor reliable.

She gave us an example, of a recent case of Dutch MEP Mariet Schaake whose speech at the European Parliament was removed from YouTube because the filter recognized it as “torture” and “hate speech.” Explicitly, the filter did not recognize that her speech was intended to emphasize the need to prevent such things as part of political discussion. Although the error was reported, the video of her speech is still unavailable because the appeal got stuck in the labyrinth of digital bureaucracy.

Meštrović, as well as other internet activists, warned that by applying the directive in its current form would irreversibly affect the lives of small people.

“Free internet access is in the interest of everyone, from bitcoin investor to a lady selling vegetables in the local market. If freedom of communication is a fundamental human right, people must have the freedom to exercise their right, provide information to children, better education and improve people’s business,” she said, emphasizing the interest of all people living in the digital world.

Activists who oppose this Directive are stressing the high risk for all start-ups and internet portals that depend on news from major newspapers. Also, the directive is exceptionally damaging to small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, who ultimately employ more than 80 percent of people in the European Union. On the other hand the implementation of the filter and the so-called ‘link tax’ will only benefit large companies employing only a tiny percent of Europeans.

She faced the entire spectrum of emotions during her two-year engagement; from the belief that she will fight like the Joan of Arc of the digital age to the stage of complete dejection while being ignored or called a conspiracy theorist for discussing EU tech policy in the making.

Because of the extensive engagement she has invested in digital activism, she does not have much time for private life, but she hopes to connect more with blockchain programmers, bitcoin investors, and other ICT experts soon and to marry the natural interests of digital rights and tech elites to defend the free Internet. Since she lives in a country whose peoples understanding of the Internet and European regulation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, it is challenging for her to find allies and partners.

“I would like to get advice from experts who could teach me how to communicate my interests more efficiently, a mentor(s) to show me how to become an effective public advocate and become an even better service to open internet access. I would like to draw together people who share my passion, those for whom the Internet represents the bloodstream of human intelligence and freedom of speech”  explained Meštrovic as the reasons she decided to talk to us.

Original in Croatian: