Born into a comfortable middle class family, and after finishing university, Francisco Polo was preparing for exams to join the diplomatic corps. He changed his mind the day after a successful campaign he had organized via his blog forced the Socialist government of the day to pass legislation banning the manufacture of cluster bombs in Spain. That was in September 2007, when the 26-year-old realized that he didn't need to be part of the system to change the world.
A few months later he joined the Socialist Party, and for the next couple of years organized online campaigns, notably for the 2009 European Parliament elections. But he decided to leave mainstream politics in 2010, when he set up Actuable.es. Within 18 months, the start-up, which he initially ran from his living room, had become Europe's main online platform for activism, accumulating 2.5 million registered users, all looking for ways to bring about change in society. Among his achievements is the right of same-sex parents to register children born via surrogate mothers abroad with the Spanish consulate as Spanish citizens, and the amnesty given to Miguel Montes Neiro, who was released earlier this year after spending 35 years in prison for non-violent offenses.
Last year, Actuable.es merged with San Francisco, California-based Change.org, the world's largest platform for what has become known as cyberactivism, bringing together around 15 million people worldwide. Francisco Polo now runs the site's Spanish division, employing six full-time staff, and sharing office space with another organization along co-working lines. Talking to Polo, it's hard sometimes to see where the activist ends and the entrepreneur begins.
Question. Is this an interview with a frustrated politician?
We're not saying how much we sold Actuable.es for. It was a fair price"
Answer. Not at all. All of us are political animals; I carry out politics through my work. But yes, I have some experience of politics. After running the Barcelona branch of Amnesty International, I became involved with a number of social movements. We decided to work with one of them, Otra Democracia Es Posible, which for the first time allowed anybody to register themselves as a candidate in local elections. I ran for the post of mayor of Barcelona using that system. After that I worked for 36 months for the Socialist Party, coordinating their internet strategy and online campaign for the European Parliament elections. It was a difficult time, and I came up against a lot of obstacles.
Q. For example?
A. Mediocrity. In the Socialist Party half the people I came across were mediocre, and the other half good people; the same as anywhere basically.
Q. Do you still have any links to the party?
A. None whatsoever. I joined the party when I was in Madrid, studying for my exams to enter the diplomatic corps. I had studied international law in order to change the law, not so as to carve out a career as a civil servant. I met Elena Valenciano, now head of the Socialist Party's organizing committee, and I wrote to her saying that I would like to work with her. She gave me a chance, but the Sinde legislation passed in 2009 [giving the state the right to close peer-to peer websites judged to be in breach of copyright law] sent me packing. It represents the biggest infringement of civil liberties seen in this country since Franco died, and a success for a lobby with an outdated business model that is trying to hold onto what little power it has left. It was a key reason for handing in my membership card.
Q. You became involved in cyberactivism in 2007 via the campaign against cluster bomb manufacturing. The day after the law was passed banning Spanish companies from making them, you decided against joining the diplomatic service.
A. I never had any doubts that I wanted to change things and to end a number of specific injustices, in part because of my past. When I was a kid, at school, I was bullied. I had a terrible time of it.
I had studied international law to change the law, not to carve out a career"
A. Because I am gay. Coming out was very important to me. I was 18 and I realized that I was much braver than I had imagined. One can change one's life, and in so doing, change other people's. While I was studying my exams, I set my first campaign in motion via my blog. And we won. In just 15 days, the government committed itself to passing a law banning the manufacture of cluster bombs. I concluded that I didn't need to continue to study to join the diplomatic service in order to be able to influence what is going on at the international level; I could do as much, or more, on my own.
Q. What else did you want to change when you were a kid?
A. I wanted to be president of the world, to end all injustice through politics. I no longer take those kinds of decisions; instead, the important thing is that we all work together to bring about change.
Q. Apparently you planted trees when you were young, and you were a Red Cross volunteer. Let's face it, you were a bit of a goodie-goodie...
A. We all make decisions about what we want out of life, what we want to do. In the Red Cross I also realized that there were mediocre people who were probably putting off others from getting involved. I ended up in a team of people who were more interested in ordering others about than getting things done. We need managers and leaders, it's what this country needs most. But we have a distorted view of leadership that is closer to dictatorship. Perhaps the concept of leadership is distorted in Spain because so many potential leaders are leaving the country... The fact is that if I had to set up a business today, I probably wouldn't do it in Spain. Not because of the leadership thing, but because of the business climate. Politicians are constantly talking about rolling out the red carpet for young entrepreneurs; what they need to do is cut the red tape. For example: the Sinde legislation means that if there is a single piece of content with copyright, the authorities can close down the web. When you set up a business, you have to assess the legal risks. And then there is the overzealousness of the Data Protection Agency: it is essential to protect users' information, but the fact that it funds itself via the fines it hands out is clearly strangling technological entrepreneurship.
The anti-download law is the biggest blow to civil liberties since Franco died"
Q. On that note, there were rumors on the web that Actuable.es, the first site that you set up, was funded through the sale of users' data to third parties...
Q. Did you inherit this drive to bring about change from your family?
A. What I inherited from my parents are ethics. My father is a notary public, which tends to make people think that I come from a wealthy family. I have had a lot of opportunities, but that hasn't affected my commitment to improving society. A good standard of living, combined with a belief in the need to do something, has led me to set up a business focused on social issues.
Q. But you were headed for the diplomatic service; and perhaps there is something of the journalist about you, in the way that you campaigned to have cluster bombs banned...
A. I don't think I am a journalist, although I use information from different sources in writing my blog. The media's role is essential for us. We have created a platform to help people carry out their campaigns. The people who sign up get things going; the media then reflects what is going on, and sometimes they will even write stories about it, as well as the work of specific journalists, who in the case of Miguel Montes Neiro, would insist on raising the matter at Cabinet meeting press conferences, eventually bringing about his release. A journalist asking the right question is as valuable as the involvement of 50,000 people in backing Montes' sister's initiative in putting a petition on Actuable.es.
Q. Do you see yourself as some kind of Julian Assange?
A. Not in the least. He set up a kind of Wikipedia to facilitate whistleblowing and help people leak sensitive information. This creates ethical and legal problems in certain cases, but also plays an important role in helping to report abuses. The more information we have access to, the stronger our democracy. Our platform is about more than simply empowering people. We provide a tool that can be used to give us better access to information.
Coming out was very important. I realized I was braver than I had imagined"
Q. Like Assange, you set up your own platform to be what you call "the bad guys' nightmare." What led you to set up Actuable.es a year after working for the Socialists?
A. The whole thing started when I realized that there was no point in continuing to work with the Socialist Party; it had become a very different organization to the one that I joined. At the end of 2009, I learnt about the existence in the United States of Change.org, a platform for blogs, as well as a tool for setting up petitions. I called a number on the site and the founder, Ben Rattray, answered. I told him that something like this was needed in Spain, and that if he didn't do it, I would. It took me six months after leaving the Socialists. I met a technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who was in Madrid and he helped me with the research. We had to talk to activists, listen to their needs, and in particular really get to grips with the issue: just who is going to pay for all this? NGOs need to get people involved in their campaigns, and so it occurred to me that they might pay for services that would help them to promote their petitions. I met a few of them and with the information that they provided we designed a platform that was financially sustainable. I spent two or three hours a day on it without putting in any money. Where we did invest was in the time needed to get the information we required: time is the most important resource for an entrepreneur in the beginning - so don't tell me that this isn't a good moment for new ideas. We actually put the project together in just a few days, and on September 20, 2010, we launched Actuable.es. Our goal was to register 40,000 people within a year and to get the first 10,000 in three months. We achieved that, and we realized that we were on to something.
Q. Tell us about the day-to-day functioning of the site...
A. We have a list of emails. Getting the email of a minister is very easy. When we saw what we thought was a particularly interesting campaign we would send out an email to all our members. That is why we ask people to register when they visit the site, so that we can keep them informed on a weekly basis. Obviously, we also use the social networks.
If I had to set up a business today, I probably wouldn't do it in Spain"
Q. Would you describe what you do as "technological entrepreneurship?"
A. I guess it's more like social entrepreneurship, which is something that already has a tradition in the United States and Britain. The idea is to apply business practices to getting things done at the social level.
Q. Are you the head of Actuable.es, or the man who sold his company to Change.org?
A. I am the founder of Actuable.es, which I sold to Change.org to create something new. I spoke to Ben Rattray again last year, and told him that we wanted to expand in Europe and Latin America. He said that they were beginning to go international and said that sooner or later we would end up being competitors. A few days later, he told me that he was prepared to buy Actuable.es, so I went to San Francisco to close the deal.
Q. How much did you sell it for?
A. We're not saying. It was a fair price, but nobody made any money on it. That said, for once I felt that my work had been fairly remunerated. The result is that we have a much more powerful platform and a team of 40 people in San Francisco. We are creating the platform of the future of social change.
Q. Is there a good living to be had as a cyber-activist?
A. Yes. Our company's employees earn what they need to live on and be able to feel concern for others. That is what their work is all about.
Q. How much of the platform's success is due to the spread of the 15-M movement?
A. Its bursting into life coincided with that of this citizens' mobilization into squares across the country. We went from 200,000 to 400,000 users thanks to 15-M. It was important but not decisive. Last September we reached 700,000 and this May 2.5 million, before becoming part of Change.org.
Q. What are you proudest of having achieved?
A. The campaign to allow same-sex parents to register babies born abroad to surrogate mothers with the Spanish consulate as Spanish. This broke new ground: 600 people signed the petition on Actuable.es. It was a major step forward in terms of civil rights.
Q. Are you tempted to join a political party again?
A. Absolutely not. Political parties are dominated by mediocre people who don't allow those with good ideas to shine. I am no longer interested in political parties, but there will be others out there who believe that they can use them as channels for change. We need people with talent, who understand the needs of society, of the economy, and of the world to step up to the plate. But that would require setting up a new party, a new type of party. Political parties must be spaces open to participation. At the moment they are more like graveyards for the talented.
Q. So why don't you found a party?
A. I'm not interested in doing so right now: I can bring about more change through campaigning than by running for office.
Q. Would you describe yourself as being anti-system?
A. Not at all. Let me use the example of the 15-M movement, with which I identify. This produced a series of assemblies I would describe as Leninist: they criticized the elites running their countries, but the reality was that you couldn't take part in the assembly if you didn't share their views. This is a result of Spain's lack of tradition of democracy. Those who understand this country's history, and why things are like they are, need to work together to create mechanisms to make our democracy more accessible. We need political reform at the economic and the social level. Spain could easily become a country filled with entrepreneurs; it is simply a question of courage and political will.
Q. You sound like a politician...
A. We all need to be politicians; we also need to be good citizens. Politicians need to be professional citizens.