Activists Claim ACTA Treaty Threatens Freedom of Speech

We don’t often see people get fired up about international treaties. But the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) has enraged Internet users worldwide.

Protests erupted in Poland Jan. 26 when its government—along with 21 other European countries—signed the treaty seeking to harmonize copyright protection standards worldwide. Polish government websites also came under attack in the days leading up to the signing.

Interest in the treaty skyrocketed last month when several well-known Internet companies launched a blackout protest against a proposed U.S. law called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill would allow the U.S. government to block overseas websites accused of copyright infringement.

Following the protest, however, several lawmakers began backing off the proposal. Now the same activists are taking aim at ACTA, which they claim threatens online privacy and freedom of speech.

ACTA not the same as SOPA

One of the organizations opposed to the treaty is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which co-signed an open letter to the EU Parliament in 2009.

EFF activist Eva Galperin said there is a difference between the SOPA bill and the ACTA treaty.

“I think that SOPA and PIPA were geared toward vastly expanding the power of the content industry … in comparison to existing U.S. law,” Galperin said. “ACTA may or may not somewhat expand the content industry’s powers vis-à-vis current US law.”

ACTA would allow participating nations to prosecute copyright violations in one and the same way—’harmonizing’ copyright laws worldwide. The treaty also sets up an international committee to oversee the process.

Secrecy

Last Friday, a member of the EU Parliament stepped down in protest of the treaty, saying there had been a “lack of transparency” since negotiations began.

Negotiations officially began in June 2008, and included  Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the US.

But negotiations were done behind closed doors, according to the EFF.

“The issue at hand is that the United States Trade Representatives are running around the world engaged in secret negotiation,” Galperin said.

42 parties were shown drafts of the treaty in 2009 under a non-disclosure agreement. The EFF requested copies of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) but were denied for national security reasons.

The USTR eventually published the treaty on its website in May 2011.

Intimidation and privacy

The treaty gives countries the option to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to disclose the identity of subscribers accused of copyright violations.

But it also requires countries to issue such orders in a way which doesn’t violate a country’s existing laws and which “preserves fundamental principles such as freedom of expression, fair process, and privacy.”

So why are both the EFF and Reporters Without Borders still concerned about invasion of privacy?

Because of another provision which requires countries to “provide criminal procedures” for “aiding and abetting” in copyright violation.

In other words, if a country allows rights holders to sue someone for sharing copyrighted content, it must also allow rights holders to sue people for helping someone share copyrighted content.

That might include Internet Service Providers.

Galperin worries that rights holders would be able to threaten ISPs with lawsuits if they don’t voluntarily identify subscribers.

It would be “a fantastic breach of privacy,” Galperin said.

No more monitoring or “three strikes”

Other controversial provisions were removed from the treaty by the time it had been finalized.

Earlier drafts included a “three strikes rule,” which would require ISPs to cut off customers’ Internet access after three copyright violations.

Drafts of the treaty also included provisions that would have required ISPs to install software to monitor or filter Internet traffic. (In the US, service providers are not liable if a customer commits copyright infringement.)

But by the time the final version came out, these provisions no longer existed. Several provisions are also now optional, not required.

When will the treaty take effect?

Although several nations have already signed the treaty, it needs to be ratified within each government before it takes effect.

The United States signed the treaty last October. In order to ratify the treaty, President Obama must present the treaty to the US Senate for approval.

No timeline for ratification in the US has been announced.

Another treaty repeats history

Galperin said that although many of the controversial provisions have been stricken from ACTA, the EFF is now focusing on another treaty under negotiation.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) would require countries to “to conform their domestic laws and policies to the provisions of the Agreement” and includes new provisions for prosecuting copyright, according to the EFF website.

Photo credit, Anonymous Group.

By Daniel Drake, Communications Intern.