European officials probably thought that no-one would take much notice when they signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on 26th January, on behalf of the EU and 22 of its member-states. Two weeks later, mass protests erupted in cities all across Europe against the controversial treaty, criticising the secretive nature in which it was negotiated and claiming it will lead to a significant curtailing of internet freedom.
This is one of the first times a decision by the EU has provoked such a united response right across Europe. From Paris to Prague, Vilnius to Vienna, thousands of protestors are braving the bitter cold to make their voices heard.
The international nature of the response seems to follow in the same trend set by the ‘Occupy’ movement, with many protesters wearing the Guy Fawkes mask whose sinister grin became the trademark of the global anti-capitalist protests. Another similarity is the way in which many people have been mobilised through the internet and social networking sites. Quite fitting for a protest aiming to protect free speech online.
Yet whilst Occupy has been criticised for its lack of direction and its failure to make specific demands, the anti-ACTA protests are mobilised around a single, explicit issue. As well as organising demos and providing flyers in ten European languages, the website ‘Stop ACTA’ encourages people to take other actions such as lobbying their MEPs. This shows how the younger generations are not just going out onto the streets to denounce the system, but are actually trying to have a real, tangible influence on political decisions.
In particular, these protestors have been emboldened by the success of the anti-SOPA and PIPA protests in the US, which caused the proposed anti-piracy bills to be withdrawn for reconsideration. The ‘Internet Blackout’ on January 20th by Wikipedia, Google, Reddit and countless other websites demonstrated the sheer power of online protest; by the end of the day the story featured on the front pages of newspapers across the country, 10 million people had signed online petitions against the bills and the White House had received 8 million emails calling for them to be withdrawn. This was an example of the huge potential influence of the internet over politicians, and its ability to prevail against vested commercial interests and lobbying groups. The massive publicity over SOPA and PIPA also put their international equivalent, ACTA, firmly into the limelight after years of limited public interest.
Negotiations over ACTA first began in 2006 between the US, Japan, and a handful of other wealthy countries, but these were held behind closed doors with no potential for public discussion. Only in 2008, when Wikileaks uploaded a discussion paper about the treaty, did it first really come to people’s attention. Public interest groups, academics and civil activists began to criticise the secretive way in which ACTA was being planned, and the exclusion of developing countries as well as civil society from the discussions. Also alarming was the extent of the involvement of powerful lobbying groups in the US, such as the Motion Picture Association of America. That particular organisation set alarm bells ringing after it reportedly advised governments that anti-piracy firewalls could be used to censor potentially embarrassing sites like Wikileaks.
However, such reservations received scant attention and therefore did little to disrupt the signing of the treaty last year by the USand seven other countries. It was only when the EU signed up to the treaty that the real uproar began. Here though there has been more opportunity for a public debate. ACTA must now be signed by the five remaining member-states, and must also be ratified by each national parliament and the European Parliament, which is set to debate the treaty in June.
Significantly, French MEP Kader Arif and ACTA rapporteur for the European Parliament resigned in protest after denouncing the whole process as a ‘charade.’ Arif claimed that the EP had not been properly informed during the course of the negotiations and that concerns raised by the institution had been repeatedly sidelined, undermining its ability to fulfil its role as a representative of the people. He also argued that the treaty would not only limit online freedoms, but could also restrict access to vital generic drugs in developing countries due to stricter enforcement of patents.
Such concerns were echoed by protestors across Europe. In particular, Poland has seen fierce opposition to the government’s signing of the treaty, causing Prime Minister Donald Tusk to backtrack and suspend ratification of ACTA in the Polish Parliament. The rest of Eastern Europe has also seen a significant public backlash, perhaps due to fears of a return to the government censorship of the Communist era.
In response to concerns about the potential implications of the treaty and accusations over its lack of transparency, the European Commission has released a document entitled “10 Myths about ACTA.” In it, the Commission argues that the agreement will not require any changes in EU law, that it contains sufficient safeguards to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, and it would not restrict access to generic medicines. It also emphasised that the treaty has been purposefully drafted in very ‘flexible’ terms. However, it is precisely this vague wording which has most worried critics, as it would allow governments so much room for interpretation.
The most striking characteristic of ACTA has been the significant influence of private interests and the exclusion of the general public. To rephrase Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, it is essentially “government of the people, for the corporations, by the lobby groups”. However, just like last month’s protests against SOPA and PIPA, the anti-ACTA movement has shown how when properly mobilised citizens can have a real impact on policy.
In addition, despite growing fears in Europe about rising nationalist sentiment, it has been a potent example of how protests against the EU’s actions can be combined with a sense of European solidarity, with protestors working together across national boundaries. Increasingly, the covert influence of corporate interests is being held to account by an active transnational citizenry, united by the mobilising power of the internet. It is therefore doubly important that ACTA receives the proper scrutiny it deserves, and that there is an open, public debate about its most contentious aspects. For it is not just our individual liberties that are at risk, but the potential for a peaceful, interconnected and transnational future which the internet so powerfully embodies.