updated 07:30 pm EST, Fri February 10, 2012
Germany, others backtracking on trade agreement
Using a network of Facebook event pages, a wiki and a spreadsheet in Google Docs, the anti-censorship group Fight for the Future is planning to launch large-scale crowd-sourced protests on Saturday against what they call the "European version of SOPA," known as ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). Over 200,000 people have committed to participate in 200 cities, mostly in Europe but with scattered protests in Canada, the US and elsewhere.
Negotiated over a number of years by the US and Japan, the treaty has been signed by some nations and rejected by others, but faces a crucial ratification vote in June. Opponents of ACTA are against the accord for several reasons, in part because it replicates some of the more onerous portions of the defeated US legislative proposal known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and in part because control over the policies of policing copyright and counterfeiting policy and enforcement would fall to a secretive, un-elected group of trade representatives and industry lobbyists who are by their nature pro-corporation.
Germany's recent decision to shelve signing of ACTA until after possible ratification comes as a huge victory for the anti-ACTA forces, who can also count Switzerland, Mexico, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia as having rejected the treaty. The EU (representing 22 member states) has already signed the accord, along with the US, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea -- but the act must still be ratified by the EU.
FftF has targeted the ratification vote and is encouraging Internet users to contact their EU representatives and call on them to vote against it. President Obama's signing of ACTA without Congressional approval on behalf of the US has raised constitutional questions about whether it is legally enforceable.
The group is also fighting another agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP that they describe as even more draconian than SOPA or ACTA. The trade agreements call for ISPs and websites to be held legally responsible for what users do online, and also gives corporations the power to stop generic drugs from being created by extending drug patents. The patent protections would also cover some kinds of seeds and foods, an issue the US conglomerate Monsanto has been actively pushing for.
In addition to the secret negotiations (until the final draft was published, activists had to rely on Wikileaks to even learn of the agreements' existence) and un-elected regulatory bodies that would control enforcement, opponents say the pacts -- which would have the force of law -- skirt democratic processes, base enforcement on the disproven claim that every pirated download represents a lost sale, and would have a strong chilling effect on any type of file sharing or free speech online.
Proponents say the strong agreements are necessary to fight illegal downloading, which is still widespread even in spite of popular legal download services like iTunes. Both the music and video industries have seen declines in sales of physical media that are not compensated for by increases in legal digital services. Pirated downloading of music, TV shows, movies and software is so commonplace and accepted that even the record industry itself has been accused of illegally broadcasting the Super Bowl using a pirate feed during an industry event. Even studies that discount the "every download is a lost sale" mentality say the companies are legitimately losing sales to piracy and counterfeiting, the latter of which is widespread in less-regulated countries like China.
Protests are expected to continue, and the final draft of the ACTA proposal has met with loud opposition within many countries' governments as well. The initial "rapporteur" of the bill through the EU quit in disgust over the lack of transparency and denounced the proposal publicly, calling it a "masquerade" that is using the "backdoor" of trade agreements to pass laws it otherwise couldn't without debate and discussion.