Opinion | Why take to the streets against ACTA?


ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is supposed to establish a framework for the international enforcement of intellectual property, but in its attempt to maximise enforcement the treaty threatens the fundamental rights of internet users.


In a letter recently circulated to members of the European Parliament, as well as to ministers of national governments, a large group of intellectual property lobby organisations headed by IFPI (the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) described the ongoing public protests against ACTA as “co-ordinated attacks on democratic institutions” and “attempts to silence the democratic process”.


But, as it turns out, hundreds of thousands of European citizens are writing emails and making phone calls to their representatives in the EP, and marching against ACTA on the streets of major European cities. This IS the democratic process.


ACTA was drafted under a veil of secrecy. For years the only access that the public, civil society organisations or elected officials had to the process was by way of secret negotiation documents published by the whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks.


In their letter, the IFPI and their co-signers even refer to the opinions of the European Parliament’s Legal Service, documents that several European digital rights organisations have repeatedly applied for, and repeatedly been refused, access to.


The opaque process of ACTA aside, the product is no less problematic. The treaty itself has been public for a while now, but the content of the negotiations are still kept secret. Thus, the only basis we have for interpreting the intentions behind ACTA is whatever has been leaked about the process and whatever public statements officials have made about it.


The articles of the treaty concerning criminal sanctions are couched in vague and broad terms that, from a Danish perspective, will cement internet service providers’ current role as private copyright police, as well as requiring the Danish state to increasingly police private copyrights.


The collateral damage of implementing the requirements of ACTA will lead to increased internet surveillance and expand internet censorship measures well beyond the scope of whatever gains these policing and punishing measures will present for copyright holders, many of whom have lobbied hard for the treaty.


The lobbyists behind ACTA complain that the free and open internet is undermining their business models and have thus set out to undermine the freedom and openness of the internet. However, it is exactly because of its freedom and openness that the internet has proven to be one of the most powerful drivers for the economy, despite current crises.


Signing ACTA means signing off the possibility of someday rolling back current enforcement measures already proving counterproductive to the establishment of a vibrant digital public sphere.


More or less every single organisation concerned with consumer, civil, and/or human rights have pointed out that ACTA is bad news for the rights they advocate. Recently, Amnesty International warned that “implementing the agreement could open a Pandora’s box of potential human rights violations”.


However, while Pandora managed to close her box again and thus preserve hope for the future, ACTA does not give any reason to hope for a future where policy is guided by evidence, argument, and the protection of fundamental rights, and not dictated by special interest, lobbyists, and past privileges.


The biggest threat ACTA poses is its potential to quash the development of a free and open internet once its evils have been let loose on the world. One prominent Danish legal scholar, Clement Salung Petersen, has warned that ACTA “risks becoming a straightjacket for Denmark”, making future policy reform difficult, even if desirable.


Today, copyright policy is internet policy, and ACTA is particularly bad internet policy. Instead of reforming copyright by adapting laws to their cultural and technological context, ACTA attempts to force the culture and technology of the internet to adapt to laws of a bygone era. 


The current copyright regime is beneficial to the special interests that have lobbied for the treaty. But we are not interested in leaving the future of the internet to the interests of the past.


That is why we are taking it to the streets against ACTA.


The author is the co-founder of internet think-tank Bitbureauet