Digital Top Stories

European countries sign ACTA, but will widespread opposition come after the fact?

By | Published on Friday 27 January 2012

ECJ

So, now all the chatter about SOPA and PIPA in the US is starting to die down, how about we return to the good old Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, that global intellectual property treaty that has been in development for years, and which was signed by much of Europe yesterday.

As previously reported, the ACTA aims to introduce some harmony around the world on IP matters, helping content owners protect their intellectual property rights on a global level. The agreement obliges signed-up countries to ensure some basic intellectual property rights are protected by local copyright and other IP systems.

Negotiations have been ongoing for years, with the European Union representing its member states in the proceedings, though yesterday the individual European nations also signed the agreement in Tokyo in addition to the EU itself. Only five EU countries did not sign up yesterday – Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia, Cyprus and Slovakia – though they are expected to do so in due course. Despite the EU having added its signature to the treaty, its support is still conditional on a vote in the European Parliament scheduled for June.

As with all new anti-piracy legislation and agreements, ACTA has not been without controversy, though its coverage in the mainstream press has been much more low key than with new national laws, such as Hadopi in France, the Digital Economy Act in the UK, and, most recently, SOPA and PIPA in the United States. Initially those involved in negotiating ACTA were accused of shrouding their early discussions in secrecy, with rumours that severe anti-piracy measures were being discussed in private. Though after a number of leaks, and the insistence of some parties that a draft should be made public – most notably the EU – a version of the agreement was made available for all to see.

There were also concerns that ACTA could be used to force unpopular anti-piracy measures – in particular three-strikes – on participating countries, allowing the content industries to say national governments had a duty to introduce such systems, even if against the public will, in order to comply with the global agreement. Though, once published, claims by ACTA negotiators that a global obligation to introduce a three-strikes anti-piracy system was not part of their plans were proven to be true.

In reality the treaty does not commit signatories to any of the more severe anti-piracy measures some expected or predicted, and supporters in Europe insist the agreement will simply force other participating countries to ensure IP protections that already exist within the EU. But that’s not to say the agreement isn’t still controversial in some circles, and while a penultimate and then final draft were made public, some feel those involved in negotiating ACTA failed to properly engage in any public debate, possibly deliberately because they knew elements of the agreement would be unpopular.

And concerns can be found in the political community as well as among web and consumer rights organisations, with the French MEP charged with the task of compiling background information about the treaty for the European Parliament this week hitting out at the way ACTA has been handled.

Kader Arif wrote: “I want to denounce in the strongest possible manner the entire process that led to the signature of this agreement: no inclusion of civil society organisations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, and the exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly”.

He continues: “As rapporteur of this text, I have faced never before seen manoeuvres from the right wing of this parliament to impose a rushed calendar before public opinion could be alerted, thus depriving the parliament of its right to expression and of the tools at its disposal to convey citizens’ legitimate demands. Everyone knows the ACTA agreement is problematic, whether it is its impact on civil liberties, the way it makes internet access providers liable, its consequences on generic drugs manufacturing, or how little protection it gives to our geographical indications”.

He concludes: “This agreement might have major consequences on citizens’ lives, and still, everything is being done to prevent the European Parliament from having its say in this matter. That is why today, as I release this report for which I was in charge, I want to send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation. I will not take part in this masquerade”.

But unlike with the DEA in the UK and SOPA/PIPA in the US earlier this month, opposition to ACTA has not become front page news, except in Poland, where thousands took part in demonstrations in various cities on Wednesday, ahead of the signing session in Tokyo yesterday, expressing the usual concerns associated with new intellectual property measures, in particular that it will hinder free speech, especially on the internet. Polish government websites were also hacked as part of the protests, though the country’s Prime Minister still signed the treaty.

Other opponents to ACTA, very possibly motivated by what the Wiki protest achieved in the US last week, when Congress was forced to backtrack on and pledge a total rethink of anti-piracy proposals, are now hoping to rally support as the global treaty is considered first by EU International Trade Committee and then the full European Parliament in June. Of course if each EU nation has signed the treaty in their own right by that point, even if the EU itself was forced to withdraw its approval it wouldn’t really make any difference, though it might force the sort of public debate on some of the criticisms of the treaty which opponents say has been sadly lacking.

And perhaps it would add fuel to an emerging campaign in the US against ACTA. America, along with Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea, quietly signed the treaty last October, but following all the SOPA/PIPA ranting of last week, some Americans are now calling into question the country’s participation, with some disputing whether a US trade representative had the authority to sign the agreement without the matter being taken to Congress.

It seems unlikely after-the-fact campaigning will deliver tangible changes, though global interest in ACTA coupled with the continued fall out of SOPA/PIPA may ensure that the intellectual property debate becomes increasingly mainstream in 2012, which is a challenge for the big content companies, who have always been very good at persuading key political decision makers of the economic importance of strong copyright laws, though pretty woeful when it comes to engaging with the wider public on the issue.



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