Is ACTA a threat to internet users?
Last week, representatives of 22 EU countries, including Malta, signed the international agreement called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement or ACTA.
The agreement was entered into between the EU, the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland. This news generated a flurry of protests, especially on the web, not least in Malta.
For this agreement to enter into force it requires the consent of the European Parliament. A vote on the agreement will be taken in the first half of this year. As a member of the EP, I will therefore be able to cast my vote to accept or reject it.
Let me explain what this agreement is all about.
First of all, the aim of the agreement is to combat counterfeiting and piracy of goods by strengthening international cooperation in the enforcement of intellectual property rights.
I am sure we all agree on the fight against counterfeiting and piracy. If we do not, then we would be putting at risk your job if you work in the manufacturing sector or if you work in the software industry – both victims of counterfeiting and piracy.
Yet, a number of complaints have been made in the sense that, despite its good intentions, this agreement can restrict internet freedom and even have other consequences, such as restrict access to generic medicines. These are serious complaints. I, for one, would vote against ACTA if they proved valid.
Let us look at some of them and find the answers. And I am here relying on official information published by the European Commission as well as on the advice of the Legal Services of the European Parliament.
Firstly, the most important point: anything that you can legally do today, you can continue doing even with ACTA. Of course, if what you do is already illegal then it will remain illegal with or without ACTA.
Secondly, there have been fears that ACTA would limit our access to the internet or our privacy.
On this, the European Commission states categorically that ACTA will not affect how people use the internet in their daily lives and it will not limit our rights on the internet. Moreover it will not cut us off the internet. Nor will it censor or shut down websites.
This is a major difference from the draft laws (SOPA and PIPA) withdrawn in the US just a few days ago.
Crucially, the Commission adds that ACTA will not require internet service providers (ISPs) to monitor or filter the content of internet users.
Indeed, the Commission adds that ACTA will not lead to the so-called “three-strikes” system, which allows copyright holders to monitor internet users and identify alleged copyright infringers. ISPs would then be asked to warn the users and after three warnings, disconnect their access to the internet. The Commission makes it clear that ACTA will not lead to this system.
Thirdly, the Commission makes it clear that ACTA will not limit access to generic medicines, whether in Europe or to poor countries. Again, if there is illegal trade, then this is already illegal and ACTA will just improve enforcement against illegal trade. But legal trade of generics will not be curtailed.
So our access to generic medicines is not affected and nor are our companies that produce generic medicines. ACTA should help these companies because it hits out against illegal trade.
What happens now? As I said, the agreement must now be voted in the European Parliament, first at committee stage, then in plenary.
So far there has not been a vote on the final agreement. So statements to this effect making the rounds should be ignored because they are clearly incorrect.
Two initiatives were taken in the European Parliament at the time when ACTA was still being negotiating in 2010. The first was a written declaration that called on the negotiators to avoid the concerns mentioned above. I signed this declaration in 2010. Then in November 2010, when the negotiations on ACTA were being wrapped up, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which I supported. This resolution supported the aims of ACTA to fight counterfeiting and piracy. But at the same time it took note of the Commission’s assurances on the key concerns identified above.
Another resolution, drafted jointly by the Socialist, Liberal, Green and Communist groups was defeated. I voted against it because it would have killed ACTA rather than help to improve it – and this would have put jobs in jeopardy. But Labour MEPs voted in favour regardless.
So when the time comes to cast my vote, I will want to make sure that ACTA truly serves to protect jobs by fighting effectively against counterfeiting and privacy. And that it does so without creating undue restrictions for internet users.
If you have views or concerns on ACTA I would be happy to receive them. The official information I used for this article is available from:
Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist member of the European Parliament.