ACTA: Pandora’s Inbox
A treaty governing intellectual property on the internet has stirred protests across Europe
It was painfully cold on Saturday, 11 Feb. when several thousand people took to the streets of Vienna to protest the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that had mobilised tens of thousands across Europe.
ACTA is an international trade agreement to protect intellectual property rights on goods and on the Internet. Its rules apply equally to fake cosmetics or pharmaceuticals, and to unauthorised digital copies online.
The demo was short and the protestors’ message succinct: ACTA is undemocratic and the "backroom politics" that has evaded public debate must yield to an open discussion of a treaty that, opponents say, will erode fundamental rights and change the nature of the Internet.
In January this year, the European Commission (EC) added its signature to an international agreement intended to provide greater protections for "Europe’s raw material – innovations and ideas," as the Commission wrote on its website. The U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea had already signed in October.
"As Europe is losing billions of euros annually through counterfeit goods flooding our markets, protecting Intellectual Property Rights means protecting jobs in the EU. It also means consumer safety and secure products," the website stated.
The treaty’s adoption in the EU is complex. While it has been signed by the EC, the agreement can only become European law once it has been approved by the parliaments of all member states and the European Parliament (EP).
However, individual member states are free to adopt the international agreement on their own. Austria is one of 22 European states that signed ACTA in January, but the Austrian parliament has yet to ratify the agreement for it to become national law.
Yet as citizens across Europe took to the streets to voice their unease over the treaty’s scope and possibly draconian sanctions, politicians have begun to backtrack. The Slovenian Ambassador to Japan who signed the treaty in Tokyo has apologised for her "civic carelessness"; Poland suspended the agreement’s ratification after mass protests; Germany has decided to hold off signing; and most recently Bulgaria has formally withdrawn its support.
Guenther Meyer from Austria’s Pirate Party (Piratenpartei), one of the organisers of Vienna’s protests, said he hoped the demonstrations would be a wake-up call for political leadership.
"As in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany, I hope that the Austrian government sees that it is not alright to go against the citizens," Meyer said. In the meantime, many Austrian politicians have begun distancing themselves from ACTA, according to public broadcaster ORF.
The Minister of Economy, Reinhold Mitterlehner, whose department was responsible for signing the agreement, and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger both said they favoured putting off the ratification until the EP has taken action on the issue, expected sometime this summer. Yet there too, opposition is building, with the Party of European Socialists announcing a "no" vote on the agreement.
To appease the growing criticism, the European Commission now wants the European Court of Justice to check ACTA’s conformity with existing European law. The Commission has long argued that ACTA will change little for European citizens, posting "10 Myths About ACTA" on its website. Yet critics remain unconvinced, circulating "10 European Commission Myths About ACTA" online in retaliation.
One of the opponents’ key criticisms is precisely that ACTA’s legal consequences are unpredictable. The agreement is worded so vaguely, they say, that it is unclear what would be legal and what illegal. The German weekly Die Zeit reported that travelers crossing EU borders could have their laptops searched for illegally downloaded music files and films.
Moreover, the treaty invites private companies to "cooperate" in the enforcement of intellectual property controls. This could entail Internet providers scouring clients’ data streams to detect illegal downloads, raising pertinent questions of privacy rights.
Speaking at the rally in Vienna, the independent Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Martin Ehrenhauser blamed politicians’ ignorance for the vague treaty text. "The Internet, mp3, html, server, route – are all foreign words for conventional politics," he said. Hence, politicians had allowed the entertainment and publishing industries to negotiate an agreement that protected its interests without engaging with civil society, Ehrenhauser said.
"We [the EP] have a chance to reject this treaty," Ehrenhauser ventured at the rally. Indeed, the treaty provides that its rules cannot be partially adopted. ACTA must either stand or fall in its entirety.
Karin, 28, who had joined the protest in Vienna, was unsure how ACTA would affect her life, although she feared she would no longer be able to do certain things.
"I can't say; that’s secret. I would have to go to jail," she laughs.
Additional reporting by Catharine Eibl