On a warm late February day on Israels Plads in Copenhagen, a crowd started to gather. Many wore Guy Fawkes masks, and on the back of an open truck a man played the theme songs of ’80s video games through his modified Gameboy. A sign held aloft depicted a crudely drawn man asking: ‘Y u no leave Internet alone?’
It was the start of a demonstration against the Anti Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA), an effort to set international standards for pursuing and convicting copyright violators.
Denmark – along with 21 other EU states, the US, Canada, Australia and Japan – signed the agreement in January.
Protests against ACTA have been held in dozens of cities across Europe, sparked by fears that it will restrict internet freedom and choke the trade of lifesaving generic medicine. Several European countries have subsequently withdrawn their support, with the Slovenian ambassador to Japan even apologising to the future children of Slovenia for signing without “paying attention”.
Danish trade minister Pia Olsen Dyhr has maintained her support, however. In a piece penned for Information newspaper, she argued agreements like ACTA are needed to fight copyright violators and protect jobs.
[Denmark] has a lot of information-intensive enterprises, which thrive on developing and designing products such as furniture and high-tech machines,” she wrote. “These companies cannot survive without effective protection of their rights both inside and outside Denmark.”
Not everyone is convinced however. One of the 10,000 demonstrators out on Copenhagen’s streets last Saturday was Mikkel Løve Graessler, a 19-year-old student who argued the pursuit of online copyright violators is counterproductive.
“ACTA is unnecessary,” he explained as he fiddled with his Guy Fawkes mask. “The internet is better for us open than it is closed and limited. ACTA was not written for the good of society, but to make sure big organisations can sue and boost their profits. They don’t understand the internet and what sharing and remixing is.”
Nearby was 29-year-old Abdellah Ihadian who was taking photographs for an online magazine.
“I’m here to support the principle of internet freedom,” Abdellah said, adding that he was also concerned about ACTA’s impact on the trade of generic medicine. “Human rights should always come before corporate rights. But it’s complex.”
Ihadian could not have chosen a better word. The 23-page long treaty is divided into six chapters and 45 articles explaining in ‘legalese’ what sorts of protection signatories should provide for copyright holders, and the rights authorities ought to have when prosecuting violators.
But while it seems thorough, many organisations have argued that in some areas it is too loosely formulated and could allow clever corporate lawyers to interpret it in ways that would allow them to increase their profit and dominance under the guise of pursuing copyright violation.
For example, Article 10 states that authorities may order that, “materials and implements, the predominant use of which has been in the manufacture or creation of such infringing goods, be, without undue delay and without compensation of any sort, destroyed or disposed of”.
Is a website an “infringing good”? If so, does this give authorities the right to destroy computers used to create websites simply suspected of manufacturing an “infringing good” without even going through a court?
In recent weeks, Information led a campaign to investigate ACTA, soliciting views from a wide range of parties who both support and oppose the agreement.
PROSA, the Danish IT workers union, took exception to ACTA’s focus on protecting online business interests at the expense of the greater good the internet provides.
“ACTA makes it difficult for people to find out what is right and what is wrong, and the content is so complex that it’s hard to assess what consequences the deal will have,” PROSA wrote.
But while PROSA argues that we ought to be discussing the rights of internet users, the Danish association of copyright holders, Rettigheds Alliancen, thinks something needs to be done to protect the creative classes from the threat of online piracy and file sharing.
“ACTA […] is not about monitoring people’s behaviour on the internet. And it is not about limiting the flow of information,” Rettigheds Alliancen replied. “ACTA is about buying and selling goods. The point of ACTA is to give businesses a greater opportunity to stop the copying of their goods.”
The two organisations were among those present at a debate on Monday evening at DR Byen, along with trade minister Dyhr and MEP Morten Messerschmidt (Dansk Folkeparti).
There, Dyhr attempted to defend ACTA from allegations that it was written in secret with copyright lobbyists, that it would lead to the surveillance of online activity by internet service providers, and that border officials could confiscate material that was simply suspected of violating copyright (such as generic drugs) without a court order.
None of these were true, she argued, pointing out that ACTA has been debated numerous times in both Danish and European parliaments and can only work within the already existing legal frameworks of the countries that have signed up.
But when quizzed on the specific articles in the agreement, Dyhr conceded that she would have to refer to a legal expert in order to explain its consequences. Messerschmidt pounced on this point, arguing that many aspects of the agreement were so vague that they could limit freedom.
According to many at the debate, the chief failing of ACTA is seen as its failure to understand the potential of the internet as a forum for the free exchange of information. As the debate wound down, a woman stood up and asserted that ACTA simply maintained an old ‘analogue’ business model without looking at the new business models the internet, and file sharing, offer.
Speaking before the gathered crowd at Saturday’s protest, Henrik Chulu from an internet policy think-tank, Bitbureauet, argued that copyright lobbyists were threatened by what the digital realm offered and did not understand how to take advantage of it.
“Internet censorship is a slippery slope,” he said. “We want digital rights. We want a ‘digital spring’.”
Chulu and other ACTA opponents may get their wish. Last week, the European Commission decided to halt the ratification of ACTA and wait until it has been examined by the European Court of Justice to see whether it is compatible with human rights laws. Many are left questioning why this wasn’t examined before countries, such as Denmark, signed the agreement in the first place.