ACTA and the EU: Dangerous bedfellows?

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Europe and beyond last weekend to protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).  Citizens in several cities including Vilnius, London, Sofia, Valetta and Tallinn rallied together and participated in an international day of action against the treaty.

Just a fortnight earlier, French MEP Kader Arif resigned his post as European Parliament rapporteur for ACTA, claiming that the treaty “goes too far” by restricting internet freedom and is a “masquerade.” M. Arif added that he believes that in its current form the treaty is ineffective and dangerous for civil liberties. So what is ACTA all about and should we be concerned?

ACTA is an international treaty designed to protect intellectual property rights (IPR) by standardising copyright protection measures. It was signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States in October 2011 and then by the EU in January 2012. The treaty won’t come into effect in the EU before it is ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament. So far, 22 member states are signatories.

ACTA’s chief aim is to curb the trade of counterfeited goods, including copyrighted material online. The penalty for individuals found guilty of breaching the terms of the agreement could be either a prison sentence or a fine. The maximum penalty isn’t specified in the treaty but will be “sufficiently high to provide a deterrent to future acts of infringement, consistently with the level of penalties applied for crimes of a corresponding gravity.”

The European Commission claims that ACTA will not target individuals and is necessary in order to effectively tackle large-scale IPR violations. It also claims that the treaty will not change EU law or restrict the use of the internet.

However, the treaty’s strongest critics argue that the ACTA’s wording is deliberately ambiguous, can be widely interpreted and will ultimately change the role of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who will effectively be responsible if their customers are pirating data. There are also fears that the treaty could result in a policed, censored internet where freedom of expression is restricted.

The European Parliament won’t debate ACTA until June, but the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Czech Republic have already announced they won’t ratify the treaty just yet. European Parliament President Martin Schulz also lent his voice to the anti-ACTA campaign this week when he stated on German TV that the balance between copyright protection and the rights of individual internet users “is only very inadequately anchored in this agreement.”

With an increasing number of angry street protests, strikes and now politicians wading in to the anti-ACTA row, the treaty tentatively appears to be unravelling in Europe. The June debate remains a few months away, but there is still plenty of time for civil society to continue to mobilise, lobby and campaign against what appears to be a potentially draconian piece of legislation which in its worst form could undermine the very principles of free speech and privacy that are so inherent to European culture.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 18 February 2012.

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