Internet freedom and copyright law

Source: The Economist

NO SOONER was the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) signed than Kader Arif, the European Union’s chief negotiator, called it a “masquerade” and resigned. Slovenia’s envoy, who signed the deal at a powwow in Japan, called her own behaviour an act of “civic carelessness”. Romania’s prime minister (now resigned) admitted he couldn’t say why his country had signed it. In Poland, where lawmakers protested by wearing Guy Fawkes masks associated with the Anonymous hacker-activist collective, the prime minister said he would suspend ratification. The Czech Republic and Slovakia (which has not signed it) later did the same.

The unusual remorse and wobbles come amid unprecedented protests against the treaty, an attempt by rich countries to protect their intellectual-property industries. Groups affiliated to Anonymous have hacked government websites. More than 1.8m people have signed an online petition. Many Poles and Swedes have demonstrated. Organisers plan protests in hundreds of European cities on February 11th.

The row follows the collapse of America’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which beefed up penalties on infringers. That was stalled in Congress after internet protests that included a one-day Wikipedia blackout. ACTA, signed so far by 30 states and the EU, creates an international regime for imposing civil and criminal penalties on internet piracy and counterfeiting. Critics say it could mean innocent travellers having their laptops searched for pirated music, or being jailed for carrying a generic drug.

That is probably exaggerated: ACTA is intentionally vague (signatories are left to draw up precise rules themselves). But it is potentially draconian. Infringers could be liable for the total loss of potential sales (implying that everyone who buys a pirated product would have bought the real thing). It applies to unintentional use of copyright material. It puts the onus on website owners to ensure they comply with laws across several territories. It has been negotiated secretively and outside established international trade bodies (despite EU criticisms). This means it has ignored the views of other countries it will affect, chiefly emerging markets. Internet activists used to be dismissed as a bunch of hairy mouse-clickers with little clout. Not any more.