On July 4, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The international anti-piracy treaty has attracted global criticism for the effect its rules would have on access to medicines and Internet freedom.
“The vote marked the culmination of a two-year battle between legislators who supported [ACTA] and its largely young, digitally savvy opponents,” reported Reuters. “Tens of thousands of activists held rallies across Europe in February to protest against the law, which they said would curb their freedom and allow officials to spy on their online activities. About 2.5 million signed a petition against ACTA.”
The Canadian government, one of several countries to sign ACTA but not yet ratify it, says, “The objective of the ACTA is to put in place international standards for enforcing intellectual property rights in order to fight more efficiently the growing problems of counterfeiting and piracy.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of many opponents of the deal, describes it this way:
ACTA is a plurilateral agreement designed to broaden and extend existing intellectual property enforcement laws to the Internet. In both process and in substance, it is a deeply undemocratic initiative that has bypassed checks and balances of existing international IP norm-setting bodies, without any meaningful input from national parliaments, policymakers, or their citizens.
Besides the European Union, other countries to sign ACTA include the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. None have ratified the treaty yet and it’s unclear how the European vote will affect that process. Only 39 Members of the European Parliament supported the treaty in yesterday’s vote, 478 opposed it (many holding signs like the image above), and 165 abstained. The European Commission, which sets Europe-wide policy, must now rework the ACTA legislation, though MEPs are skeptical that’s possible.
“No emergency surgery, no transplant, no long period of recuperation is going to save ACTA,” said David Martin, a Labour MEP from England who sits on the trade committee. “It’s time to give it its last rites. It’s time to allow its friends to mourn and for the rest of us to get on with our lives.”
According to Reuters, “European Parliament President Martin Schulz said in a statement after the vote that legislators were not against intellectual property rights but that ACTA left too much room for abuses and raised ‘concern about its impact on consumers’ privacy and civil liberties, on innovation and the free flow of information’.”
The response from the Commission was predictably robotic: “A vote against ACTA will be a setback for the protection of our intellectual property rights around the world,” said EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht. But the Commission will continue to move ahead as if democracy in action was just a minor setback to be ignored… because it can be, apparently.
“Today’s rejection does not change the fact that the European Commission has committed itself to seeking answers to the questions raised by the European public,” said de Gucht in a prepared statement. “As I have stated before, the European Commission will continue to seek the legal opinion of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on whether this agreement harms any of the fundamental rights of European citizens – including freedom of speech. European citizens have raised these concerns and now they have the right to receive answers. We must respect that right.”
But as the Reuters article notes, “In rejecting ACTA, the European Parliament has not only raised doubts about the agreement’s future — because to function well it will require global adherence — but also called into question a separate proposed EU law on enforcing copyright.”
In other words, European opposition to these unbalanced intellectual property rules might settle in to roost. It certainly has in the United States (and now Canada), where groups like the EFF, OpenMedia.ca and dozens of others are opposing ACTA-like intellectual property enforcement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Over 80,000 people have now signed a “Stop the Internet Trap” petition. You can too, right here.
Business lobby groups in Europe are also worried about the sudden outburst of democracy in the European parliament, which they think could undermine the Commission’s copyright demands in trade agreements with Canada, China and elsewhere.
“When the EU talks to China about intellectual property rights, they (China) will refer to the parliament’s rejection (of ACTA),” Ilias Konteas, a senior adviser at BusinessEurope, told Reuters. “I am afraid the unintended consequences have not been considered by members of the European Parliament.”
The Harper government has already signed ACTA, but if we are to believe Canada’s lead negotiator in the CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) negotiations with the EU, the plan was to continue to push back against some of the Commission’s copyright proposals. Harper recently passed new copyright legislation into law, but according to close observers of that process and the CETA negotiations, earlier EU demands in CETA would require Canada to change our laws again to make them more favourable to rights holders and less so to Internet users and consumers of copyrighted content.
“Europe Considers Using CETA To Create ‘Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement Plus’,” wrote University of Ottawa professor and Internet activist Michael Geist in a June 2011 blog entry.
“According to documents I’ve seen, Italy has called for the broadest possible scope for CETA, including geographical indications (yes, criminal provisions for geographical indications),” wrote Geist. (Geographical indications are names for products that are linked to certain regions, towns, etc. For example, Champagne, Roquefort cheese… even Feta, “which is not named after a place in Greece, but is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product,” according to the European Commission.)
“Despite the fact that this extends well beyond ACTA,” Geist continued, “the Italian position is supported by Portugal, Greece, France, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In fact, the Czech Republic would also like to extend the criminal provisions to designs. The UK, Austria, and Finland oppose extending the provision beyond ACTA. The decision was ultimately made to start by proposing the ACTA language and consider progress on the remaining IP related issues in CETA before escalating European demands.”
It’s small consolation in a way, considering how much else is wrong with the Canada-EU trade deal, but it’s good to know the ACTA rejection in the European parliament may undermine the Commission’s negotiating position on IP in CETA while emboldening European trade committee members and other MEPs who seem to think open, democratic policy making is important. ACTA didn’t fit that category, neither does CETA.