Europe in Turmoil Over Internet Anti-Piracy Legislation

The European Parliament positions itself as a guardian of privacy, data protection, and freedom from heavy policing by states, but a bill called ACTA is challenging that.

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A recent protest in Bulgaria against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement / Reuters

In the wake of the public outcry in the United States over proposed domestic antipiracy legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), international regulation is also taking a hit. The edifice of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) seems to have crumbled. This time, however, it happened in Europe.

The European Commission has suspended ACTA's ratification, shunting it instead into the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This is read by some as a means of putting the debate on ice for a year. ACTA's Commission proponents seem to hope that a favorable ruling by the ECJ will provide the political cover necessary to defuse their critics' arguments that the agreement is a violation of fundamental rights to internet freedom and privacy.

But Brussels' attempt to disarm opponents through a court decision is a fundamental misreading of the scope and intensity of the opposition to ACTA. Major protests took to the streets of European capitals earlier this month, with more than one hundred thousand people in Germany alone. These come on the heels of demonstrations in Warsaw and Prague, and coordinated denial of service attacks by the hackivist group Anonymous on the government websites of Poland and the Czech Republic.

ACTA is a multinational compact that aims at stemming commerce in counterfeit products, generic medicine and web-based copyright infringement. The agreement was signed in Japan in October 2011 by thirty-one governments, mostly advanced industrial economies, including the United States, EU member states, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Of middle- and low-income countries, only Morocco came on board. Russia and China, two of the most notorious countries for their intellectual property rights (IPR) violations on- and offline, stayed away.

ACTA could be the latest casualty of a negotiating climate in Europe that has traditionally taken place without the antiseptic of public debate. The battle lines have already shifted on the issue as the rumbling opposition to ACTA crested in the European Parliament (EP) and in Central Europe.

The agreement's most controversial section centers on the potential effects that its provisions could have on IPR enforcement online. The text requires Internet service providers (ISPs) to identify users deemed to be violating a copyright for possible legal recourse. Critics of the agreement have stated that it provides a framework for a much more intrusive relationship between law enforcement, ISPs and IPR holders on one hand and Internet users on the other. Some hint at the creation of a culture of perpetual surveillance online that could radically alter the Internet's ecology of freedom and openness.

In the United States, Congress has not had a say in the agreement. Some on Capitol Hill, notably Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), have questioned the administration's ability to enter into a binding legal agreement without Congressional authorization. Washington is seen as the agreement's primary proponent, and it was effectively ratified when President Obama signed it on October 1, 2011. That moment passed with virtually none of the public debate and fanfare that surrounded the signings of SOPA and PIPA in January 2012.

Unconventional Alliances

In Europe, however, national legislatures and the European Parliament (EP) will play a role in approving the agreement. Currently, five EU member states have not signed the agreement. While most originally signaled that they would sign, many have since halted the process. The European Commission has committed itself to the agreement with the lead negotiator, Dutch commissioner Neelie Kroes, tweeting that "ACTA does not limit freedom. important for ppl 2 understand all the facts. nothing changes for individual users in EU."

The Commission is frantically attempting to dispel perceived similarities with the two maligned U.S. proposals, SOPA and PIPA. Although trade agreements have traditionally been negotiated behind closed doors, the degree of opacity in the ACTA negotiations--even from stakeholders involved in the process such as legislators and affected industries--has been marked, presaging the backlash that has taken place in the EU over the past month.

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Tyson Barker is director of transatlantic relations at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

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