Maryam Ansari writes on what action is being taken on the deeply unpopular ACTA

People should not be afraid of shady legislation...

A recent wave of large-scale protests in various European countries, including Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Germany and Bulgaria, have brought the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) under closer scrutiny. ACTA was first developed by Japan and the U.S. in 2006, and whose current signatories include also the EU and 22 of its member states, Australia, Canada, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. It was first set up, like its sister acts in the U.S., SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), for copyright protection purposes, but this claim is coming under attack at every angle from those who believe that, in practice, this will translate into ‘internet censorship’, increased government surveillance of online activity, as well as providing an illicit justification for future invasive searches, for instance at airports, for illegally downloaded music, movies and documents. In fact, from the beginning, the act came to be branded for being overly clandestine in nature, as its contents were not fully released to the public until the discussion papers were uploaded on Wikileaks in 2008.

It is not entirely clear what will come to pass. What is clear, however, is that the people are not about to sit idly by and accept this blatant attempt at censorship. They are finding ways to fight back, both on the streets and online. Anonymous, a group of internet hacktivists which have become increasingly engaged with online protests against ACTA, SOPA and PIPA, have recently declared that “ACTA is a downright shitty act. We must kill it. With fire.”

‘Operation Black March’ is Anonymous’s newest project against such anti-piracy acts. It urges the general public to refrain from buying, streaming, downloading or watching any movies, songs, books, newspapers, or magazines, for the whole month of March as an act of demonstration, is gaining in popularity, with about 11, 000 followers on Facebook alone.

Wikipedia’s recent blackout was also another form of online protest against US anti-piracy acts. This was followed, however, by megupload being ‘megashutdown’ (The Periscope) and its leader, 37-year-old “Kim Dotcom”, being arrested in Auckland, New Zealand, currently facing a 20-year jail sentence.

Support is being rallied by some of the top-dogs as well. For instance, Kader Arif’s (European parliament’s rapporteur for ACTA) resignation on the 27th January, purported by his outright refusal to ‘take part in this masquerade’ was highly symbolic of his stance against ACTA and what the latter really stands for. Furthermore, at around the same time, a group of Polish politicians expressed their disapproval of the treaty by displaying Guy Fawkes masks during parliamentary proceedings, which, in itself was beyond symbolic because the masks themselves were considered to be allegedly ‘counterfeit’ (as Time Warner owns intellectual property rights to masks and expects royalties for their use).

In his recent speech, Karel de Gucht, European Commissioner for Trade, sought to set worried minds at rest by declaring that ‘there nothing to fear from ACTA’. He assured the public that there is no truth to the rumours about the undemocratic nature of ACTA; that it will not ‘censor the internet’, that it will not ‘require the inspection of laptops or MP3 players by customs officials’, and that it will not ‘impose any restrictions on trade in generic medicines’. De Gucht also declared that ACTA will ‘not criminalise anything that is not already a crime’, meaning you will not be forced to go to court for illegal downloading, unless it was carried out on a commercial scale. This statement was also backed by Rupert Schlegelmilch of the European Commission’s directorate-general for trade.

Convincing though de Gucht’s speech appeared, many remain unconvinced. MEP Dr. Simon Busuttil held his ground against ACTA stressing the element of distrust already associated with the latter. He stated “The public debate on ACTA has been poisoned by sheer misinformation, by undue politicisation and by the failure of the European Commission to communicate the agreement properly”.

On the issue of generic medicine, possibly the biggest controversy surrounding ACTA, Dr. Meir Pugatch argued that the treaty could, contrary to popular belief, indeed help health issues in third world countries, as the real problem lies with counterfeited medicines and substandard medicines, which, in his words, ‘could seriously damage your health’.

But again, there is high reluctance to believe such flowery words, as shown by, for instance, the doubts cast by British Social Democrat David Martin, who emphasises the treaty’s lack of clarity in defining counterfeit medicines as opposed to generic ones in practice, and how these will be distinguished when arriving at the frontier.

In other words, what Bussuttil and Martin are trying to say, and I am rather inclined to agree, is that we have to see it to believe it. Trust is indeed a two-way game. If they want us to trust their intentions, they need to trust us by relaying more detailed information about the treaty itself. At this point, the public seems caught up in a game of table tennis between two contenders, swaying back and forth between the impulsive hypothesising of Anonymous and other similar activists at one end, and the empty words of promise and reassurance of pro-ACTA officials at the other.

A key moment for the future of ACTA is due to come in June, when the European Parliament, whose support is vital for the actual implementation of the treaty in Europe, is expected to debate the matter. But no doubt the controversy and debates surrounding the act will continue, not only until June, but also in the long-run thereafter, until the general public is let in on the big secret.


Maryam Ansari

Image Credit- Henrik Moltke