‘Secret’ deals that make loud noises online
When 22 EU member states, including Malta, signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Acta), which had already been signed by eight other countries, it was inevitable that the online communities who generally support the concept of a “free internet” would react strongly to new restrictions on the use of the ’net.
The perceived interference by the political establishment on the free use of the internet had already caused consternation among ordinary internet users. That happened when Wikipedia and Google blocked their websites for a day in protest against the US government’s attempt to introduce a similar law called Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa), which has now been shelved by the US Congress.
The head of the EU Commission Representation in Malta acknowledged that Acta “appears to be causing concern among internet users” but attributes this to “lack of knowledge about what it really entails. Acta is not Sopa. It is not about checking or monitoring your iPod, laptop, e-mails or phone. Acta acts against large-scale infringements (of intellectual property rights) very often indulged in by criminal organisations”.
But MEP Kader Arif, the European Parliament’s former rapporteur for Acta, takes a very different view on the potential risks to the privacy of internet users.
When he quit his post in protest at the way that Acta was approved by “never-before-seen manoeuvres” by officials preparing the treaty, Mr Arif said: “I condemn the whole process which led to the signing of this agreement: no consultation of the civil society, lack of transparency since the beginning of negotiations, repeated delays of the signing of the text without any explanation given, rejection of Parliament’s recommendations as given in several resolutions of the assembly”.
European Commission representatives deny the charges and insist that the full text of Acta was “fully public since April 2010”. They tried to allay internet users’ fears by declaring that “there will now be a full debate” on this act that still needs to be approved by the European Parliament: “Acta does not change any EU laws, it simply levels the playing field so that other countries match the standards. There is no threat to internet freedom or privacy. Everything you can do legally today in the EU, you would be legally able to do if the Acta is ratified”.
The way in which Acta was shaped naturally gives rise to more controversy. The move has been condemned by all kinds of groups determined to protect their rights to freedom and privacy in the use of the internet.
While no one could be justified in condoning the systematic infringement of intellectual property rights, which reportedly cost the EU €8 billion worth of trade “through counterfeit goods sneaking into our markets”, the possible draconian action contemplated by Acta will certainly not be the best way ahead to control abuse.
Many civil rights commentators argue that the way that Acta was promoted undermines the democratic debate of existing internet providers monitoring bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the World Trade Organisation.
Others, like the civil liberties and privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, argue that “while on the surface purporting to be about counterfeit goods, Acta actually proposes the same kind of intrusive surveillance of our internet activity that was abandoned in the US”.
Laws like Acta need to be debated openly with proper public scrutiny and not behind closed doors. It is always right to question whether these laws have the best interests of citizens at heart.