Forget SOPA, Europe is about to ratify its bigger brother ACTA

23 Jan 2012

Just as the SOPA and PIPA debate winds down in the US, the European Union is later this week set to work on ratifying a global intellectual property enforcement treaty: the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

European countries, including Ireland, will later this week join the US, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Mexico, Jordan, Morocco, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Canada in supporting ACTA.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), ostensibly the agreement deals primarily with counterfeit physical goods, such as medicine.

However, it will in actual fact have broader scope and in particular will deal with new tools targeting “internet distribution and information technology.”

Last week, hundreds of major websites in the US – including Wikipedia, WordPress, Boing Boing, Craigslist and Reddit – protested the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill and its sister Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Millions of web users took to social media to join the protests.

The protests, which included petitions and letters to politicians, succeeded in swaying the White House and members of the US Senate to withdraw support for the controversial bills.

One of the reasons ACTA is arousing suspicion and concern is so little is actually known about it.

According to the EFF, it contains several features that raise concerns for consumers’ privacy and civil liberties, as well as legitimate commerce, innovation and the free flow of information.

ACTA, it argues, also limits developing countries’ ability to choose policy options that best suit their domestic priorities and levels of economic development.

Why is ACTA so mysterious?

The EFF said: “ACTA is being negotiated by a select group of industrialised countries outside of existing international multilateral venues for creating new IP norms, such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the World Trade Organisation.

“Both civil society and developing countries are intentionally being excluded from these negotiations. While the existing international fora provide (at least to some extent) room for a range of views to be heard and addressed, no such checks and balances will influence the outcome of the ACTA negotiations,” the EFF warns.

Few countries that are about to ratify the agreement, including Ireland, have provided information to the public about the ACTA negotiations.

A document seen by the EFF, a sort of discussion paper, reveals that rightsholders are asking for new legal regimes to “encourage ISPs to co-operate with rights holders in the removal of infringing material.” In Ireland, the Government is within days about to pass a statutory instrument that may give rights holders, such as music labels and movie studios, the right to seek injunctions against ISPs concerning illegal downloading on their networks.

The EFF says that rights holder groups that support the creation of ACTA have also called for mandatory network-level filtering by ISPs and three strikes-style graduated response practices.

The EFF warns that the kind of filtering methods ACTA may usher in may include deep packet inspection of citizens’ internet communications, raising considerable concerns for civil liberties, privacy rights and internet innovation.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years