Now that the US bills SOPA and PIPA have been put on ice, attention has returned to their parent, an international treaty called ACTA. I’ve written extensively about ACTA before, but in summary it is an international treaty that has been secretly negotiated to ensure as little input as possible from the citizens of any country.
While superficially about stemming the flow of counterfeit physical goods (ACTA stands for “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement“), the copyright and patent industries (music, movies, software, pharmaceuticals and more) have successfully infested it and the result is a trade agreement that substantially reduces the scope for discretion over new approaches to business on the internet.
While we are told ACTA “will not require changes to Europe’s laws”, it creates an environment where we can expect all the most controlling and invasive parts of every country’s laws to be emphasised and all the most flexible parts – such as fair use, the public commons and cultural expression – to be minimised. It’s a treaty that will be cited every time the USA wants to extradite a British citizen over copyright, for example – even when no law in Europe is being broken. Like DRM, ACTA quantises discretion and reduces all our freedoms.
Despite the fact it is obviously controversial – even the MEP tasked with working on it for the European Parliament quit – the European Commission saw fit to co-ordinate its signing by most European administrations last week. They are now ridiculing opposition to their actions and misrepresenting the impact of ACTA. A clear gesture of defiance to the popular will expressed against SOPA/PIPA, this is anti-democratic arrogance at its worst and a gift to Britain’s euro-sceptics.
All is not lost, though. ACTA will come to the European Parliament in June for ratification, and there is every chance that MEPs can be mobilised to reject it. Since the treaty has already been finalised in secret and presented to the world as a fait accomplis, rejecting or accepting it whole are the only available options. But since, according to the European Commission, it changes no laws, presumably its rejection is no big loss.
I’m reminded of the battle by the Internet against the Software Patent Directive back in 2005. That too was an unwise legislative direction that would have seriously impacted European business by allowing giant monopolistic international corporations to stifle competition, even for interoperable software permitted by copyright law. MEPs had been told the Directive was a non-controversial piece of industry law that should just be waved through. The European Council waved it through on that basis.
To their surprise, there was a massive backlash from a large number of previously politically silent citizens across Europe, culminating in a huge protest at the European Parliament. MEPs were faced with a public backlash. While the actual mechanism for its defeat was obscure and complicated to explain, the basic reason the Software Patent Directive was defeated was that MEPs discovered they had been deceived and that the topic was in fact highly controversial and citizen-oriented.
We need to demonstrate the same for ACTA. It’s not a business-as-usual commercial-only matter. It’s a treaty that stifles the soul of the meshed society in the interests of the winners in the technology markets of the twentieth century. In the coming months we all need to speak out.
[First published on ComputerWorldUK]