With reports just breaking today that Germany has decided not to sign the ACTA treaty (according to an Aremnian news website that is citing official government sources), the official opposition to ACTA across Europe is growing.
Saturday 11 February will see an estimated 750,000 people take to the streets of Berlin to demonstrate against ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) – a document aimed at curbing criminal copyright infringement, but that many civil rights activists believe will lead to the criminalisation of innocent internet users and a huge change in our online rights.
We take a look at what the treaty means for European web users and how we all have the power – and the duty – to shape the future of global digital policy…
The epicentre of the war on digital freedom
ACTA is a multinational treaty, initially signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the USA. The European Union followed suit in October last year when its 22 member states signed on and has since become the epicentre of this new battle for civil and digital rights – due to the fact that only six members of the 22 member states are needed to ratify its proposals by July this year for it to come into force across the continent.
Much like its US counterparts SOPA and PIPA, the treaty seeks to address the growing number of nefarious web practices – from pirating copyrighted material to dealing in illegal medicine. So why are these seemingly sane measures causing so much controversy?
Judge, jury and executioner
Raegan MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst at international digital rights organisation Access explains: “We want to make this clear – of course we believe that intellectual property should be protected, of course artists should get paid for their work. Of course we don’t want to see counterfeit medicine.
“The problem is that the treaty is so huge and so vague – umbrella policy like this ends up being more harmful than the activities they seek to curtail. It has ramifications for intellectual property, for trademarks and patents and even for third-world countries receiving generic medicines.”
“Because ACTA asks ISPs to take direct liability for their users’ actions, and big business don’t want to be culpable for any misdemeanours, they will end up acting as judge, jury and executioner for their users to monitor what they deem “correct usage”.
A hostile online environment
MacDonald thinks that this would lead to a massive crackdown on our liberties: “Unlike the UN framework, they are ill-equipped to address human-rights issues. It would lead to wide-scale surveillance of networks in the name of identifying alleged infringers. ISPs are likely to take down content and suspend user accounts rather than face penalties.”
“It would have a massive negative affect on the online community – it would lead to the criminalisation of users for trivial offences. ACTA will create a hostile environment on the web. It’s entirely contrary to what the internet brings to society in terms of innovation and creativity.”
The people versus ACTA
But it’s far from being a gloom-laden dystopia – thanks to a massive network of grass-roots protests, driven by the very communications system that the treaty seeks to police, officials and Parliamentarians are starting to take note.
Czech, Polish and Slovenian governments have distanced themselves from the treaty, stating concerns for human rights and freedom and their main reasons following large-scale protests in their countries, while the French MEP Kader Arif resigned from his post of negotiating ACTA, stating that it “goes too far” by potentially cutting access to pioneering drugs and restricting internet freedom.
MacDonald explains why grass-roots activism is fundamental to changing policy: “I think the most interesting thing that ACTA – on the heels of SOPA and PIPA – has brought up is that the greater community wants to get involved.
“This is no longer a niche or nerdy area – this is seen by people as an issue worth going out in the cold of winter to protest about. It’s a policy that will affect people’s lives both on and off-line.
“Europe and European citizens have the chance to stop ACTA in its tracks. At the end of the day I don’t know what will happen in the summer, but the amazing thing is that the general public has mobilised over this issue – they have sent a clear message to Parliamentarians that its citizens care about these issues and are watching what they do. And that they are prepared to speak up for what they believe.”