Internet users and government officials in many European countries have been protesting an anti-Internet piracy and intellectual property treaty known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) with increasing volume.
ACTA would establish a framework for fighting copyright infringement across international borders, be it physical or digital. Opponents of ACTA say it is too far-reaching, and warn that it could lead to a crackdown on small-scale digital piracy and have unintended consequences for generic drugs, which are classified along with counterfeit ones. Critics also worry that it will be up to individual countries to decide what constitutes a “commercial” level of piracy, and say the treaty was drawn up with little public consultation.
The protests follow unprecedented online action against two anti-piracy bills in the U.S. last month, when several major websites, including Google and Wikipedia, blacked out content, and millions of Internet users signed petitions to protest two proposed bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), forcing many legislators to withdraw support for the proposed legislation.
A combination of events has combined to fuel a newfound advocacy among ordinary Internet users, say tech lawyers, scholars, and activists. Besides SOPA and PIPA, there was last year’s Wikileaks saga and last month’s coordinated global raid against the file-sharing website Megaupload.
“I think many citizens worldwide connected the dots due to the awareness that SOPA/PIPA and Megaupload got,” says Jeremie Zimmerman, the head of the French Internet advocacy group La Quadrature du Net. “It shone light on ACTA, which ironically came much earlier in time, as it is the blueprint for SOPA/PIPA.”
Last Friday, Polish president Donald Tusk said his government was suspending the ratification process following large street protests in his country. Meanwhile, the Slovenia representative to the treaty apologized for her support, as Anonymous attacked the website of a major Slovenian bank. Members of the Bulgarian parliament also wore the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous as a means of protest, following the government’s signing of ACTA. Further anti-ACTA protests are scheduled for various European cities on February 11.
The United States, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Morocco, Mexico, Singapore, the European Union, and many other nations are party to the agreement, which will take effect if it’s ratified by at least six members. So far, none have ratified the agreement. Critics say the agreement would stifle freedom of expression online.
Trade groups, including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, have all been active in the agreement’s development and have pledged their support.
In September 2011, Christopher Dodd, the former Connecticut senator and current head of the MPAA, lauded the new agreement. “Intellectual property theft on an unprecedented, global scale is depriving creators and copyright owners of the return they deserve on their massive investments of creativity, expertise, and hard work, undermining the creative sector in every country,” he said.
In late January, Kader Arif, a French member of the European parliament, resigned from his position as the European rapporteur for ACTA and denounced the treaty “in the strongest possible manner” for having “no inclusion of civil society organizations and a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations.”
“This sudden eruption in Poland, in my opinion, was a sort of paradoxical reaction to a very long tome of silence,” says Katarzyna Szymielewicz, the cofounder of the Panoptykon Foundation, a Polish privacy activist group. “The society, including young and educated Internet users, used to be very passive in global, Internet-related debates like data retention or Internet blocking. Suddenly they ‘discovered’ that their government is about to finalize a very controversial agreement behind their backs and that this agreement may affect their daily life. They responded with an outrage, behaving a bit like a [shaken soda can].”
Some campaigners believe ACTA could even be misused for political ends, and see a parallel with the way Wikileaks came under financial pressure after releasing a trove of U.S. government communications last year. “Imagine a world where your business may have its existence threatened by vigilante measures—promoted by its own or foreign governments—by their hosting provider or their domain name registrar or domain name registry or advertising network or payment service provider,” says Joe McNamee, the head of European Digital Rights, a Brussels-based Internet advocacy group. “The threat is not theoretical, as Wikileaks shows.”