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By: MarkJ - 26 January, 2012 (11:59 AM)
europe map digital agendaacta internet copyright lawThe controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty that aims to establish a broad new range of international copyright enforcement standards (e.g. such as through broadband ISPs or at airports etc.), has today been officially signed by the European Union (EU) and 22 of its Member States at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Critics of the treaty claim that it risks turning internet providers into an unofficial copyright police force, among many other things, and has been allowed to bypass normal due process. The latter complaint is often made because of ACTA's questionable status as a "trade agreement", which doesn't attract the same degree of government scrutiny.

The Open Rights Group Campaigner, Peter Bradwell, said:

"You may remember the healthy debate held here about whether this international treaty was something that the UK should commit itself to, helping policy makers arrive at a collectively taken decision. No? Good spot - there was no such debate!

[ACTA] was waived through the committees responsible for scrutinising the agreement, being deemed a 'document not raising legal or political questions requiring a report to the House'. This is despite ACTA having very serious consequences for the free flow of information online, repeating the kind of mistakes seen in the US' 'SOPA' and 'PIPA' legislation."

In fairness ACTA has since been watered down (here) and now contains some additional, if admittedly ambiguous, references to preserving fundamental principles (i.e. freedom of expression, fair process and privacy). Crucially the European Commission (EC) stated last year that "neither personal searches nor the so-called ‘three strikes’ [ISP piracy warning letter] procedure will be introduced" by ACTA. But that hasn't quelled all of the concern.

Jérémie Zimmermann, Spokesperson for La Quadrature du Net, said:

"European citizens must reclaim democracy, against the harmful influence of corporate interests over global policy-making. For each of the coming debates and votes in the EU Parliament's committees before the final vote this summer, citizens must engage with their representatives."

So far none of this has stopped the EU, Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States from signing up (Germany, Netherlands, Estonia, Cyprus and Slovakia did not sign); with more to follow. It's also unlikely to have a huge impact upon UK ISPs because our domestic law (Digital Economy Act), which is still being held up by technical and legal challenges, are already considerably more advanced.

Attention will now turn to the European Parliament (EP), which still has the power to block ACTA but it probably won't. The parliament already cleared the final text back in November 2010 (here) when they described it as a "step in the right direction". A final vote is due before June 2012.

UPDATE 27th January 2012

Kader Arif, whom was appointed by the European Parliament (EP) to investigate ACTA, has quit his role as rapporteur and launched a scathing attack on the treaty. It certainly makes for an interesting read.

Kader Arif ranted:

"I want to denounce in the strongest possible manner the entire process that led to the signature of this agreement: no inclusion of civil society organisations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, exclusion of the EU Parliament's demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly.

As rapporteur of this text, I have faced never-before-seen manoeuvres from the right wing of this Parliament to impose a rushed calendar before public opinion could be alerted, thus depriving the Parliament of its right to expression and of the tools at its disposal to convey citizens' legitimate demands.

Everyone knows the ACTA agreement is problematic, whether it is its impact on civil liberties, the way it makes Internet access providers liable, its consequences on generic drugs manufacturing, or how little protection it gives to our geographical indications.

This agreement might have major consequences on citizens' lives, and still, everything is being done to prevent the European Parliament from having its say in this matter. That is why today, as I release this report for which I was in charge, I want to send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation. I will not take part in this masquerade."

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