Copyright & Intellectual Property: Europe Debates ACTA

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusker answers questions about ACTA at a news conference in January. On Feb. 3, Tusker suspended Poland's process to ratify ACTA and he announced a public debate on the topic set for Feb. 6.

by Gabby LaVerghetta

With the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) officially off Congress’ calendar for 2012, many netizens have breathed a sigh of relief. (For more on that topic, please see “Global Sharing Culture: Are SOPA & PIPA Really Over?”.)  But the fight to protect free speech on the internet is not over.

At the end of January, 22 member states of the European Union signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Countries that ratified ACTA last year include the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  Although the European Commission signed on to the treaty, the European Parliament must ratify the agreement, with a tentative deadline set for June.

Since the treaty’s inception, there has been an attempt to avoid any public debate on the subject. ACTA was initially negotiated in secret. The public had no access to the text of the treaty until WikiLeaks leaked a draft in 2008. In the United States, President Barack Obama signed ACTA as executive agreement without congressional approval.

Once appearing inevitable, ACTA might not be a done deal. If the European Parliament fails to ratify the treaty, ACTA dies. European citizens are pressuring their governments to kill the treaty.

Activists declared February 11 an international day of protest against ACTA.  Meanwhile, local protests are taking place across the continent.

Poland especially has been heavily targeted. The BBC reported that thousands of protesters gathered in several Polish cities. In parliament, Polish politicians donned Guy Fawkes masks. The hacker group Anonymous also shut down several Polish government websites with distributed denial of service attacks. In response to these political pressures, on Feb. 3, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusker announced Poland was suspending its ratification process for ACTA and that the government would host a public debate on the issue Feb. 6.

In addition, Kader Arif, the European Parliament member assigned to monitor ACTA, resigned in protest. On his website, Arif admonished the treaty as a farce. And most interestingly, the Slovenian ambassador to Japan issued a public apology for signing the treaty, saying she did so “out of civic carelessness.”

Admittedly, there are some misconceptions about ACTA. Many of the claims about border checks and forced surveillance are based on earlier versions of the document and are no longer true. Timothy B. Lee of explains that the treaty does not require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to watch their customer’s traffic.

Actually, the main reason that ACTA is so worrisome comes from its vague language. The treaty can be interpreted in various ways. The ISPs are not required to monitor traffic, but they could do so. Such vagueness will have a chilling effect on creative expression. It could also be used to interpret the treaty in ways more heavy-handed than originally intended.

But whether the arguments over ACTA are based on a misunderstanding of the treaty is not of great importance. The public’s reaction to SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA show that civil society is finally impacting internet policy, and that’s a good thing.

(The photo is from the Polish government and is in the public domain.)

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