The controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) may be DOA when the full European Parliament votes on it on July 3, after the Parliament’s International trade committee, INTA, rejected the agreement 19-12 Thursday. ACTA is designed to combat international trade in pirated intellectual property, but much like the currently dormant Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S., has raised vigorous objections from opponents concerned about Internet privacy and the possible chilling effect on Internet freedom of speech.Much as it was in the U.S. with SOPA, the Senate version of the legislation, and the House version, Protect IP Act (PIPA), opponents fear that ACTA would require Internet service providers (ISPs) to police their customers and subject Internet users to an overly aggressive level of scrutiny. Foes also object that the agreement was negotiated in secret as a trade agreement, when it is in actuality copyright law. The agreement is designed to create and enforce international standards for intellectual property and prevent the huge trade in counterfeit goods, especially pharmaceuticals, software and entertainment (music, film, video games etc.).
The language of the agreement targets any website hosting pirated IP on a large scale culpable, but also targets companies “aiding and abetting” the activity. Opponents argue that the wording is vague as to what constitutes “large scale” and “aiding and abetting.” They also argue that the potential penalties are out of proportion for copyright infringement.
ACTA are supported by major drug, record and film companies. ACTA was signed by United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea last fall.
Like SOPA and PIPA, which were shelved in the eve of congressional voting after President Obama declared its opposition, ACTA has drawn vigorous opposition from the hacktivist group Anonymous, which, for example, took down numerous Polish government sites over that government’s expected support.
Make no mistake; the Internet trade in counterfeited goods is a huge problem. Companies and artists lose billions annually as a result of the huge trade in pirated software, drugs, music, movies and games. The opponents who feel that the punishments don’t fit the crime aren’t necessarily taking into account the sheer scope of the illicit trade. This isn’t the 1980s, when copyright infringement may have meant some bootleg CDs and VHS tapes. The scale of international copyright piracy is staggering, and is empowered by consumers who do not distinguish between shoplifting a DVD and downloading a pirated copy of the “Avengers.”
So some international standards are probably in order, but legislation such as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA are bound to stifle the golden age of trade the Internet has enabled and restrict freedom of expression and individual privacy. And they are not likely to be effective, in the end. There is no simple answer to a problem on this scale, and it may ultimately be insoluble. Law enforcement action such as the take down of file sharing site Megaupload and the arrest of its principals earlier this year help, but they are akin to big drug busts. They make a dent, but the trade endures.
There is an expression, “water finds a way.” In other words, no matter how tightly you think you’ve sealed things up, water will find a way to seep in.
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