* interview for The Sofia Echo weekly, published on Friday, Oct. 10. Author: Rene Beekman
On the morning of our interview, Veni Markovski posted a Facebook status message saying he thought that, “as long as there are people in Bulgaria like those with whom I talked the night before, there is hope”.
Asked who he was referring to, Markovski points to the first row of tables in the hotel lobby we are sitting in, and, without naming his conversation partners by name, he says “we were actually sitting right here, at that table over there. These were three well established Bulgarian bloggers, who, besides blogging, also have a profession. If there are still people like them in this country there is still hope that things might become a little bit different.”
“The majority of media has become very – not even populist in the English sense of the word – but they do not report facts, they create stories. They want to produce news instead of reporting the news,” Markovski says.
“If you take a look at the Bulgarian media, there is a specific tense they use; I call it future undefined. In today’s newspaper there is a headline that they are raising the pension of 41 000 pensioners, but if you read the article, you see that nobody is raising anything. It is a proposal that some people are looking at. That’s why I call it future undefined; it may happen in the future, but we are not sure,” he says.
According to Markovski, it is thanks to Bulgarian bloggers that one can still find some reliable information.
“Some bloggers are becoming really better [than newspapers] because they report the news, without speculation, and they do not use this future undefined tense,” he says.
And this is even easier to see from abroad, he adds. “When I’m in the country, like for a holiday, I get sucked in. It’s like a swamp, you can’t get out.”
From the outside
Markovski, who currently lives in the US where he works as an independent business consultant, started as a system administrator for the first Sofia-based FidoNet bulletin-board system in 1990.
In 1993, Markovski and Dimitar Ganchev started Bulgaria’s second Internet Service Provider (ISP) Bol.bg, a company Markovski headed for several years. In 1995, Markovski co-founded the Bulgarian Internet Society.
“It was the sixth internet society that was founded in the world, now there are more than 80. In the beginning it was mostly explaining what the internet was. Nobody knew. At the time there were probably 2000 users in the whole country,” he says.
The Bulgarian Internet Society became known both locally and internationally, when it successfully fought a government plan to introduce a licensing scheme for ISPs. Currently, the non-profit organisation participates in European projects for free and open source software. It was the Bulgarian Internet Society to introduce the Bulgarian version of the Creative Commons licenses, with adaptations to local law.
“So many websites now offer their content using creative commons licenses that Google and Yahoo offer specific search options to only search within that content. Even in Bulgaria, the President’s site and the Foreign Affairs Ministry are published under Creative Commons licenses,” Markovski says.
“This is what we put a lot of effort into; explaining to people that there is nothing wrong in publishing your content for free. It is really ridiculous to see a copyright sign on government.bg. They can’t get copyright by the Council of Ministers, because they don’t produce anything that can be copyrighted,” Markovski says.
As an example, he points to a website Prime Minister Boiko Borissov recently opened, which contains all the stenographs of the Parliament’s sessions. The content of the site is copyrighted, which, Markovksi says, would mean that newspapers would have to ask permission any time they want to quote from the content.
“We don’t have a working system in this country. If you compare it to Western Europe or the US, where it doesn’t really matter who is your king or who is your president, the society works. Here, if you have an idiot for a prime minister, then the whole system stops working. People always wait for some command from above; they never take initiative.
If I were a system administrator at one of the ministries, I would have changed the copyright notice a long time ago. No one would have noticed that it was not copyrighted,” Markovski says.
Referring to a recent interview with Ina Kileva, executive director of Bulgarian anti-piracy outfit Bulgarian Association of Music Producers (BAMP), published by The Sofia Echo, Markovski says the the discussion has been “going on for a very long time and I think it is completely wrong”.
“A few days ago [Bulgarian daily] 24 Chassa published another letter from the music or movie industry, again blaming the internet for the fact that they can’t sell their music or movies,” he says.
“This discussion is based on the assumption that the users are the bad guys who are downloading music for free off the internet, or watching movies.
They say that if we somehow manage to punish these people, instead of downloading movies and music off the internet, they will start buying. But that is a very wrong assumption, because if users are not allowed to download, they will just not download and they will not buy. They are not going to pay for the music or for the movies. If they wanted to pay, they would not be watching the latest movie on a 12-inch screen in not so good quality, they would just go to one of the big movie theatres and watch it for 10 leva,” Markovski says.
According to Markovski, the data quoted by anti-piracy organisations is incorrect. As an example, he quotes the data on software piracy in Bulgaria.
“There is no software piracy in Bulgaria, and that is very easy to prove even with the data that the Business Software Alliance (BSA) provides,” Markovski says.
Quoting BSA data, Markovski says that in 2000, between 80 and 90 per cent of software in Bulgaria was alleged to be pirated, with an estimated value of 10 million dollars.
“If that is the whole amount of software in Bulgaria, that is a very low number, but that is their data, so let’s assume their data is correct,” Markovski comments.
“In 2002, the Bulgarian government signed a deal worth 13.6 million dollars to buy software from Microsoft. Now, if you have 10 million worth of illegal software and you buy 13 million, the next year you should have a plus. What the BSA did though, was that they increased the amount of illegal software to 20 million dollars. Why? Who knows. But probably they couldn’t say ???we screwed up last year, so we have to fix the numbers this year.’ In 2008, then minister Nikolai Vassilev signed a deal for 54 million euro, again for software only from Microsoft. I bet you the BSA will still claim there is illegal software in Bulgaria,” Markovski says.
“Obviously, something is wrong with their numbers. And if it is something that is so simple to be caught, then how can you trust their numbers at all?” he says.
The BSA is an international organisation, whose members include some of the world’s largest computer software and hardware producers. The organisation’s activities include fighting software piracy and lobbying for tougher laws on anti-piracy. According to Markovski, these companies, and therefore the BSA itself, have an interest to give governments reasons to increase spending on software, and one of the tools used in this is the Special 301 Report, published annually by the office of the US Trade Representative. The report lists countries that are thought to lack sufficient intellectual property rights protection and enforcement.
“Obviously, if Bulgaria is on the 301 list, the minister will say ???we are in this report and we have to get out, so we have to buy software.’ This is a vicious circle, there is no exit,” Markovski says, “unless you have a government that is committed to change the perception that everyone in this country is a criminal and a pirate. What you need to have is someone at a governmental level who will say ???your data is not correct and until you fix it, we are not going to take it as reliable’. They can send a letter to the US Trade Representative and explain that if they continue to include Bulgaria in the 301 list based on data that comes from producers’ organisations and the BSA, Bulgaria will make this a public case. There is nothing worse for a US official than to find out that they have been misled by a lobbyist organisation and publicly embarrassed,” he says.
As chief executive of one of Bulgaria’s then largest ISPs, Bol.bg, Markovski says he has made proposals to intellectual property rights holders and their representatives to solve the piracy dispute. One of these proposals was a flat-rate fee, to be paid to rights holders, for every subscriber of the ISP.
“We proposed that we would pay two leva, or one euro, per user a month, no matter whether they download movies and music or not. I think we had around 10 000 users at that time, so that would have been roughly 120 000 euro a year from only one ISP,” Markovski says.
“This would have been a very good working model, so all the other ISPs would have joined. And today, with close to 45 per cent of Bulgarians online, or about three million people, they could have had 36 million euro a year, money they can never make by selling CDs,” he says.
According to Markovski, the offer was declined. “Obviously they prefer to get a small amount of money from their foreign sponsors, like other similar associations from all over the world, mainly the US of course.”
With a friend who at the time worked as a top-level officer for the Bulgarian police, Markovski says he once discussed the software piracy issue. According to his police-friend, Markovski said, it was very simple; as long as there is the perception that there is piracy in Bulgaria, the associations get funding from their international bodies to fight the piracy. “If there is no piracy, they get no funding,” Markovski sums up the friend’s conclusion.
“When there was ???piracy’ in Bulgaria, and I always put quotation marks around the word piracy because I believe there is no piracy in Bulgaria, the workshops that the BSA and others organised in Bulgaria were held in good resorts around the country. For several days they would put together teams of investigators, judges and prosecutors, and they would explain to them how to fight cybercrime and copyright-related crimes. When Bulgaria was dropped off the Special 301 Report, suddenly the same workshop would not take place outside Sofia and there was only water to drink. Otherwise, I’ve been at such workshops where there were big dinner tables with lots of alcohol, you name it,” Markovski says.
“In other words,” he says, “the fight against piracy is in the interest of those who fight it. They have no interest to solve it. If they wanted to solve it, they could have accepted our offer eight years ago. By now, they could have had 200 million for those years, roughly.”
Where Markovski’s comments on piracy and the anti-piracy lobby are light-hearted and sprinkled with an amusement that expresses how absurd he finds the situations he describes, his views on the Bulgarian implementation of the European Data Retention Directive are a lot gloomier.
The police and Interior Ministry background of many of the members of the new Government, combined with the fact that the current opposition cannot oppose the introduction of data retention laws because it was lobbying to get such laws passed while still in power in the previous government, seem to seal the fate of any discussion on this topic in Parliament.
“We may face a data retention law which will be accepted by acclamation. Nobody will be against it,” Markovski says.
“Interior Minster Tsvetan Tsvetanov said they are looking to use court approval before using retained data, but the problem is the police will have constant access, without the knowledge of the service provider, to the data that goes through their system. In other words, if they want to use this in court they will get permission from the court. But if they want to use it for something else, be it control, blackmailing, economic interests, they don’t need the court’s permission. So I think people should know that this could and probably would be used against them. Not could, but would. It will be used,” Markovski says.
“The thing is, we do have freedom of speech. But if someone finds out that you have published something which someone at some level of the government does not like, no one is going to punish you for publishing it, but they will find a different way to punish you by following your communication,” he says.
“The previous Interior Minister [Mihail Mikov] argued that the police needs to act really fast and they don’t have time to go through the court. But even in the current law the minister has the right to give wiretap approval for 24 hours and only then you need to get court approval. Only very few judges have refused approvals for wiretapping. So they are basically saying ???Look, we are going to be wiretapping you anyway, so why are you wasting our time with this stupid court approval?’ That’s how I read it anyway,” Markovski says.
“In Bulgaria it is well known there has been wiretapping, under communism and today. So if we have a history with that, why would you think the government would suddenly say ???well, we used to do that, but we are not going to do it anymore.’ If we talk about the individuals, the people who actually have been access to it and have been making a lot of money with it, why would they suddenly stop? These are the same people. The companies that used to buy data are the same,” he says.
“The government says they do it for the security of the people, which is not always the case.
Or let’s put it this way; while it is the case, in our [Bulgarian] conditions it can also be used for someone’s personal benefit. That is what I am afraid of, because we don’t have a society in this country. At all. We don’t have any mechanism of control over abuse of that database,” Markovski says.
“We all know that the US was spying on their own citizens after September 11, even though this was illegal. The difference between there and the EU-proper, as I call it, and here, is that if somebody breaks the law there, whether that is a law enforcement officer or a minister or senator, they could be caught and punished. In Bulgaria there has been no case of anyone going to prison. That is the difference,” he says.
In 1997, Markovski wrote an essay entitled “Why nothing is going to change in Bulgaria in the next 25 years”. The subtitle of the essay was “If you’re in a bad mood, don’t read this because it is not going to improve”.
“I read it again recently and I think it is still true, only that instead of 25 I could probably say 45. Bulgaria is very consistent in not creating the basic principles of modern civilization,” he says.
“I used to joke that it is not bad that there will be wiretapping, as long as there is a provision in the law that when you lose your notebook, you can go to the police and get a copy of your communication, then it is fine. Free backup.”