Apr 12 2012
Little Action on ACTA
David Martin MEP, European Parliament Rapporteur to the EU ACTA Agreement wonders at the UK’s low profile of an angry, determined campaign growing rapidly in the rest of the EU.
On 22 February the European Commission referred a highly controversial piece of legislation – the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), to the European Union’s highest court – the European Court of Justice (ECJ). As the Rapporteur for the final report I welcomed this referral and look forward to the ECJ’s legal opinion as to whether the agreement, and most importantly its implementation, will be fully compatible with freedom of expression and freedom of the internet.
Controversial? Says who? Judging by the media interest in the UK, not many at all. Despite the fact that on 28 February the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee was handed a petition against ACTA, signed by almost 2.5 million people worldwide, in this country, hardly a column inch has been allocated either to the specifics of the Agreement, or to the concerns – indeed anger – that ACTA is generating in other EU countries.
What is ACTA? And why has it drawn so much attention in Europe?
ACTA is an international treaty with the stated aim of combating Intellectual Property Rights infringements, namely counterfeiting and piracy. Anti ACTA campaigners have focused on the possibility of any border guard, in any treaty country checking, or seizing any item they consider to be an infringement of copyright law, whether that be electronic data or generic medicine.
Unfortunately, its designation as a trade treaty meant ACTA could be negotiated behind closed doors. This initial lack of transparency clearly backfired; rumour, wild speculation and paranoia abounded leading to the European Parliament adopting a resolution condemning the secretive approach of the Commission and EU Council of Ministers and resulting in the release of the negotiating documents in April 2010. But fear and rumour about ACTA still remain. There is a belief that ACTA will alter the nature of the internet by putting legal pressure on Internet Service Providers to police their service.
This, and the extreme reaction to the agreement in one Member State – Poland – contributed to the resignation of the previous Rapporteur, Kader Arif. While the UK saw barely a ripple of disapproval, in Poland the news that the country’s government were going to sign ACTA triggered a massive public outcry. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and several Polish government websites, including that of the Prime Minister Donald Tusk were hacked. Both the content of ACTA and the manner in which the government was trying to push it through were perceived as testament to the erosion of democracy and the privileging of corporate rights and interests over those of the individual.
ACTA has already been signed by 22 EU members, including the UK but this will mean nothing if it is not ratified by the European Parliament. The much maligned, little valued European Parliament is now, with the powers allocated to it by the Lisbon Treaty, holding the future of the act in its hands.
At this point the Parliament is not in a position to make recommendations on or alterations to the Agreement. The stark choice is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and hence the plethora of digital activists urging citizens to lobby their MEPs against a ‘yes’ vote.
Perhaps the EU Trade Commissioner de Gucht would welcome the UK’s apparent relaxed disregard to the proposal. At a joint news conference last month, where he and I outlined our opinions on the Agreement, and its referral to the ECJ, de Gucht took time to deride the misinformation and rumour that has dominated the social media sites and blogs in recent weeks and stressed that the final version of ACTA is very different to earlier drafts. “There is nothing in the final text requiring internet service providers to ‘police’ user activity or permit border searches of individuals’ music” he stressed, “there is nothing which would hinder the production and transit of generic medicines”.
As the theme of this year’s Olympic Games ceremony will attest, our creative industries are one of our greatest assets. Intellectual property is a raw material and protecting these industries from counterfeiting and piracy is paramount. The protection and promotion of genuine and legitimate European goods is a common goal across Member States and parties.
Parliament’s eventual consent or rejection must be based on the aims and consequences of the final text. However the interpretation and implementation of ACTA is yet unknown and for my part as Rapporteur I am seeking to bring clarity.
I am pleased that the European Parliament can properly use the power that we’ve been given under the Lisbon Treaty to consider the concerns of our citizens and come to a coherent and considered conclusion. I listened seriously to the worries of many citizens who felt the ACTA text was being “rushed through” the European Parliament without serious consideration of some substantial concerns on the Agreement.
Although I welcomed its referral to the ECJ, I have also stressed that even if the ECJ rules that ACTA adheres to the EU basic rights and existing EU treaties, this will not necessarily approve the Agreement. I want the Parliament, separately as a distinct institution, not jointly with the Commission, to outline our concerns.
As part of a “three pillar” strategy I proposed firstly that the European Parliament refer the text of ACTA to the European Court of Justice, separate to the referral which the European Commission had announced, to request answers to the specific concerns and questions which the Parliament would draft in consultation with civil society.
The second pillar of my proposed strategy was to draw up an interim report before we voted on ACTA, to request specific and detailed information and guidelines from the European Commission and the Member State national governments on the intended interpretation and application of ACTA.
The third pillar of my proposal was to consult widely with civil society, stakeholders and citizens who wished to contribute to the scrutiny and debate. These three “pillars” were intended to gather as much information as possible to assist Members and myself in making an informed judgement. I felt it was important to have time before the vote to clarify how the European Commission and the Member States would implement the Agreement.
On 27th March the International Trade Committee rejected my first and second proposals, and decided instead to maintain the existing timetable for the consent vote.
As a result I will now prepare to draw up my recommendation to the committee on the final ACTA text, which I will present on 24th/25th April. The committee will vote on 30th May and the Parliament will vote in June on my report to either grant consent or reject ACTA.
I will continue to consult widely with stakeholders, including the upcoming Socialist and Democrat hearing which will be held in the European Parliament today (12th April) and webstreamed live.
The following day, I will be speaking at a seminar at the European Parliament Office in Edinburgh at 11.00 BST to provide an update. People interested in this issue can submit questions to the seminar via the European Parliament’s Facebook page, and we will post responses there and on my Facebook page after the event. You can also follow the seminar on Twitter #ACTAEdinburgh.
Perhaps the UK will wake up to the louder protests and growing activism of its European neighbours; be alert to what may be potential threats and be quicker to protest, guard and defend their freedoms.