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The Life and Death of ACTA

In early 2012, the Internet was becoming an increasingly dark place. The word had started to spread ACTA, a dark monster looming in the darkest corner of the net, and then both SOPA and PIPA were revealed , even more creatures of the night accompanying ACTA. For vast numbers of internet activists and regular users, these beasts seemed impossible to beat.

Yet only six months later, ACTA, SOPA and PIPA were all effectively dead. On January 20, US representatives decided to postpone SOPA and PIPA. And on July 4, the European Union voted against ACTA with a decapitating 92 percent majority, marking it globally dead.

How could this sudden change happen? How could a few Internet activists lead a movement defeating ACTA? And is ACTA truly dead?

Anti-ACTA poster from Piratenpartei (Pirate Party) Schweiz. CC-BY

Anti-ACTA poster from the Swiss Pirate Party (CC-BY).

The Rise of ACTA

ACTA, the Anti-Conterfeiting Trade Agreement, was a multinational treaty with its foundation laid in 2006 by politicians in Japan and the United States. Its aim was to fight conterfeiting and copyright infringments, both in the physical world – fake bags, clothes, et cetera – as well as online – illegal downloads of music, films et cetera. ACTA came before the public eye in May of 2008, when WikiLeaks uploaded a discussion paper on the previously unknown agreement. During this time both Canada and the European Union had joined the discussion. Australia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore would join when the negotiations officially began in June of 2008.

From the very start, ACTA was severely criticised on a number of points. One of these points was that it had been kept secret for too long, consciously excluding the citizens of the negotiating states, and denying the European Parliament access to documents that was granted to the United States.

Concerning its content, ACTA was criticised as being too broad. It covered both physical conterfeit and digital file sharing under a single treaty. Many of the actual suggestions of ACTA were also criticised. One example being the original version of ACTA, that proposed a three-strike system where Internet service providers would be given police-like rights to shut off users from the Internet without a fair trial. In an open letter from the Free Knowledge Institute, it was argued that “the current draft of ACTA would profoundly restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of European citizens, most notably the freedom of expression and communication privacy.”

The Fight Against ACTA

Six months before the European Parliamentarians would vote on ACTA, large groups of protesters started to rally throughout Europe. Before the rallies became large more immediate threats emerged that needed to be defeated first. Huge protests erupted simultaneously, both online and offline, against SOPA and PIPA (two other treaties that would greatly harm Internet freedom). On January 18, several thousand websites, including Google and Wikipedia, collaborated in the largest Internet protest to this date by temporarily blacking out their websites. This effectively showed what the Internet would look like if the treaties were passed. As a result of these protests SOPA was officially postponed on January 20, allowing energy to be focused on protesting ACTA again.

Acta protests in Frankfurt, Germany, on February 11. CC-BY Robert Skibicki.

ACTA protests in Frankfurt, Germany on February 11.
CC-BY Robert Skibicki.

In late January, the Polish Parliament signed the ACTA treaty. This spurred protests both in the streets and in the parliament, where even politicians wore Guy Fawkes masks in protest. As information about this spread on the internet, the protests grew further. Several large protests got planned throughout Europe for February. On February 4, many protest rallies occurred throughout Europe, including several thousands taking to the streets in Sweden.

On February 11, protests had been scheduled throughout most of Europe. The protests took place simultaneously in over 200 cities located in Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Denmark, Poland, France, Italy and several other countries.

ACTA demonstrations throughout Europe on February 11. Public domain by Stanqo.

Protests throughout Europe on February 11.
Public domain by Stanqo.

On February 22, the European Commission asked for the European Court of Justice to analyse whether ACTA was compatible with fundamental human rights. This delayed the European Parliament’s ratification vote further. Even with this doubt about ACTA maybe breaking fundamental human rights the International Trade Commitee decided to hold the vote in early July as planned, choosing to not wait for the Court’s ruling.

The decision has been despised and cheered by both promoters and critics of ACTA. When the treaty had started facing more and more criticism, it had been argued that a delayed vote could have led to ACTA passing unnoticed after mass media had tired of the “spectacle”. The activist group La Quadrature du Netwere among those welcoming the early vote, arguing that “the door remains open to a swift rejection of ACTA”. At the same time, a court ruling against ACTA would clearly have hindered the treaty’s passing, while a ruling for ACTA might have helped it pass.

The Death of ACTA

With the European vote of ACTA coming closer, political commentators argued that a defeat in the parliament would lead to its very death. Many states participated in the negotiations, but the European Union was clearly one of the most important potential signers of the treaty, alongside the United States and Canda. It was therefore essential that the European Union signed the ACTA treaty if it was to have an effect. In June, original Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge called the July 4 vote “where ACTA lives or dies“.

On July 4, the European Union voted against ACTA with a decapitating 92 percent majority, 478 votes against and 39 for the treaty. In Europe, as well as most other negotiating countries voting against ACTA, the treaty is now effectively dead.

Or is ACTA Really Dead?

Before the final EU vote, Canada and the European Union started drafting a new treaty. The treaty was called CETA, Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, and compared to ACTA it covers very similar grounds when it comes to copyright. CETA could very well become the next big threat to an open and free Internet. Still, as commentators are careful to point out, the alarm bells concerning CETA are probably premature.

The latest leaked CETA documents are from February, a time when ACTA was expected to pass without any problems. CETA was constructed not as a replacement for ACTA, but as a separate treaty. This assumed that ACTA would already be in effect when CETA was to be voted on. Since ACTA was met with such enormous criticism and was ultimately voted against, it is still unclear how this will affect the outcomes and creation of CETA. It is possible that it might be rewritten to exclude the criticised sections, or CETA might simply be voted against by the same crowd opposing ACTA.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, politics is a complex game without easy answers. For now, let us continue celebrating the global and eternal death of ACTA, and the rise of human freedom.

Featured Image: Stop ACTA Screenshot | CC BY-NC-SA Anonymous

Anton Nordenfur

About Anton Nordenfur

I'm party organiser for the Swedish Pirate Party, and work as a freelancing writer and translator. I'm primarily interested in research politics and LGBTQ rights, and blog in Swedish over at antonnordenfur.com.

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