In the United States, a massive Internet protest last week led by Wikipedia and Google drove congressional leaders to place controversial anti-piracy legislation on hold. But in other parts of the world, another proposal to increase copyright enforcement is gaining momentum, despite protests from opponents concerned about Internet censorship.
The European Union and 22 of its member states signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, today at a signing ceremony in Tokio — a major step toward enforcement of the copyright treaty. Though initiated by the US, Japan is the official depository of the treaty.
Signatories include the UK, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. The five remaining member states — Cyprus, Germany, Estonia Netherlands and Slovakia, are also expected to sign soon. Any countries wishing to sign the agreement have until May 2013 to do so.
Eight countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea, had already signed the agreement on October 1, 2011.
Although the EU has signed the agreement, it still has to be ratified by the European Parliament before it can go into effect. This is expected to happen in June, and will almost certainly happen since the Parliament has already accepted the text. European digital rights groups are calling for an anti-ACTA campaign along the lines of the anti-SOPA campaign.
ACTA has always been controversial because the international negotiations that began in 2006 took place in secret. Leaked cables published by WikiLeaks in 2009 exposed early drafts of ACTA, resulting in a firestorm of controversy.
Those cables, coupled with later releases, showed that ACTA negotiations began in 2006 and were controversial even to participating states. But now, opponents of the treaty have developed new muscle after witnessing the success of the Internet outcry against the two U.S. bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).
Kader Arif, rapporteur for ACTA in the European Parliament, immediately quit his role as rapporteur (an EU legal term for an official appointed by a deliberative body to investigate a specific issue). He denounced the signing of the agreement, quoted by French digital rights organization La Quadrature, in some of the strongest political terms ever heard:
“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, exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly.”
He went on to conclude, “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 mascarade.”
In Poland, thousands took to the streets this week to protest the government’s intention to sign ACTA. Several popular Polish websites replaced their regular content with statements expressing concerns about ACTA, and government websites were taken offline in an apparent denial-of-service attack coordinated by the hacktivist group Anonymous. The group also attacked and took offline the Federal Trade Commission’s website yesterday in protest against the treaty.
20,000 Polish Protesters Take to the Streets in Defiance of Global Oppression
For copyright holders, an international treaty may offer fewer roadblocks to combating digital piracy, critics say. While SOPA and PIPA sought to change U.S. law by forcing American Internet service providers to block domain names of websites believed to be engaging in online piracy, ACTA seeks to implement existing U.S. copyright law in countries where copyright enforcement is less stringent. The Obama administration has argued that ACTA does not require Senate authorization because it’s “technically an executive agreement.”
But U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden wrote a letter to President Barack Obama last fall raising questions about whether it was constitutional for the U.S. trade representative to sign on to the treaty without Senate approval.
Sean Flynn, a professor of intellectual property law at American University, said ACTA is not as “draconian” as the pending U.S. legislation, calling the treaty “SOPA light.” Some of its most troubling measures — such as a requirement that Internet service providers suspend service to customers caught downloading copyrighted works, known as the “three strikes” rule — have been stripped from the agreement, he said.
But other experts argue that ACTA is still problematic. “ACTA contains new potential obligations for Internet intermediaries, requiring them to police the Internet and their users, which in turn pose significant concerns for citizens’ privacy, freedom of expression, and fair use rights,” Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog last fall.
Many of those who have supported the U.S. legislation are also backing ACTA, including the Motion Picture Association of America. ACTA is “an important step forward in strengthening international cooperation and enforcement for intellectual property rights,” said former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the MPAA, in a statement last fall.
“The same industry rightsholder groups that support the creation of ACTA have also called for mandatory network-level filtering by Internet Service Providers and for Internet Service Providers to terminate citizens’ Internet connection on repeat allegation of copyright infringement (the “Three Strikes” Graduated Response) so there is reason to believe that ACTA will seek to increase intermediary liability and require these things of Internet Service Providers,” reports the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
ACTA is not the only anti-piracy treaty raising concerns. Some experts fear the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) may include intellectual property measures more restrictive than those in ACTA. But public information about the latter treaty is vague because it is also being negotiated in secret, experts say. “We don’t know what’s in the TPP IP chapter, and that’s what worries us,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote on its website.
Flynn said the impact of last week’s protests against SOPA and PIPA has forced the world to pay more attention to these copyright treaties. “There have been protests with ACTA, but they’ve never reached this scale,” said Flynn. “The politics seem to be changing on this issue internationally.”