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.
Less than ten weeks remain before EU citizens will be able to register the very first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). From 1 April, citizens will be able to call on the European Commission to propose legislation on any issue where it has the competence to legislate. That could be virtually anything from culture, education and the environment to consumer protection, equality or transport. Great! Fantastic! At last, an opportunity for ordinary people to gain access to the College of Commissioners and truly influence policy making and the legislative process in Europe. Well it is, but the procedures for proposing an initiative are neither quick, nor simple.
The ECI was born out the Lisbon Treaty and is part of a drive by the EU to improve transparency and democracy. Essentially, if an initiative receives one million signatures from citizens who come from at least seven of the EU’s member states then the European Commission will consider the proposal.
So how does it work? Well, before an ECI can be launched at least seven citizens from seven EU member states must form a “citizens’ committee” and officially register the ECI online. Then the committee can begin to collect signatures, and organisers have a year to do so. Any EU citizen can sign an initiative (so long as they are old enough to vote in European Parliament elections) and must complete a specific statement of support, either online or on paper. Once one million signatures have been collected, representatives from the Commission will meet with organisers and discuss the initiative in detail. There is also an opportunity for a public hearing at the European Parliament. The Commission will then adopt a formal response to the ECI’s proposals and set out its next course of action, if any.
This is a long process. Initially, the Commission has two months to register the proposed initiative. If you want to be able to collect electronic signatures for your ECI (and who wouldn’t in this digital age), then it takes a further month to build an online collection system that can handle the appropriate technical and security demands. This also has to be certified by a national authority in the member state where the data is going to be stored, before any signatures can be collected. Organisers have a year to collect signatures, and then a further three months are allowed for national authorities to verify the statements of support.Once organisers have received certificates verifying the signatures they submit these to the European Commission, who have a further three months to examine the initiative and prepare a response. Potentially, that’s 21 months of work from start to end, not to mention the work that goes in before an initiative is first launched.
Critics argue that the process is too complex, too long-winded and that ultimately, the European Commission is not legally bound to propose legislation as a result of an initiative. There are also fears that the ECI could be hijacked by civil society organisations pushing their own agendas. The Commission has tried to prepare for this by announcing that initiatives can’t be run by organisations. However, organisations are allowed to promote or support an ECI provided that they do so “with full transparency.”
On the plus side, this really is a rather revolutionary step for the EU and it has never consulted its citizens like this before. Last year the UK government introduced e-petitions, a similar measure for citizens to influence policy by way of a petition (only 100,000 signatures are needed for a subject to be raised in the House of Commons) and the website has been hugely popular. If the ECI receives the publicity it deserves on 1 April, it should get people talking and, hopefully, mobilised. One million signatures is a huge number to collect but in the digital age this might not be quite such a mammoth task. Time will tell and the first ECI is just around the corner.
This post was published by The New Federalist on 8 February 2012.
German Socialist MEP Martin Schulz was elected President of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week. His election comes at a particularly poignant time for socialism in Europe – both the heads of the European Commission and European Council belong to conservative political parties who are affiliated with the European People’s Party and there are just four left wing governments amongst the EU’s member states.
Schulz, who was nominated by MEPs from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) back in September 2011, has been the group’s president since 2004. He succeeds Jerzy Buzek, who became the first Polish President of the European Parliament in 2009. The new president, who has a comfortable majority of 387 out of the 670 votes cast, is now responsible for presiding over parliamentary debates, chairing plenary sessions and representing the parliament internationally. He will hold the post until the next European elections in July 2014.
British MEPs Nirj Deva (Conservative) and Diana Wallis (Liberal Democrat) also stood against Schulz, gaining 142 and 141 votes respectively. Since her defeat on Tuesday, Diana Wallis has announced that she is to resign after representing Yorkshire and the Humber for the past twelve years. When an MEP steps down, their seat is handed to the candidate who came second on the party list behind them. Diana Wallis’s constituents can now look forward to being represented by her husband, Stewart Arnold.