ACTA: an Exercise in Totalitarianism

Bansky ACTAOn the heels of SOPA and PIPA, two widely criticised US law proposals – comes an international agreement called ACTA, the “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement”. Quotes are in this case most appropriate as ACTA is an extremely far reaching general agreement with massive consequences for privacy, freedom of speech, due process, the Internet and global health – among other things. ACTA confirms once again that a massive legal and lobbying campaign is in progress and the world’s biggest corporate publishers and content producers are behind it. They are fighting tooth and nail against allowing the world to drag them into the 21st century, a century of unprecedented free flow of information with the Internet and the electronics revolution as its main engines. The similarity to the outcries of Hollywood when video recorders took off is striking, but because of today’s pervasiveness of digital technology and its general purpose nature, the conflict is becoming much more serious and bitter.

There are many reasons to throw ACTA out the window and the formal reasons are not the least among them. Officially, ACTA has nothing to do with national security, but it has been written up, lobbied for and signed in a number of countries in utmost secrecy. ACTA-related WikiLeaks’ Cablegate cables revealed that initial target countries’ governments were frustrated by pressure from the USA and Japan to not discuss the agreement publicly in their own countries, but the frustration did not stop some twenty countries from signing the agreement. Any regulation or agreement made in secrecy deserves a good explanation, but by now the point is moot as it has become perfectly clear that ACTA was a secret initiative because it was obvious to its proponents that it would cause a massive uproar of dissent, which is what is happening around the world right now. It is my opinion that as a rule, civil society should learn to punish their political representatives every time they attempt to do something behind everybody’s backs. A minimum punishment should be rejection of proposed initiatives, in this case rejection of ACTA. Note that this is not just a matter of principle: secret initiatives cannot be scrutinised and the public cannot form opinions meaning that every time civil society fails to prevent such an initiative, it basically signs a blank cheque because it does not understand the consequences.

ACTA and the people and organisations behind it are not trustworthy. To make that point, Kader Arif, EU Parliament Official in charge of ACTA resigned his position in protest and said: “I want to denounce in the strongest possible manner the entire process that led to the signature of this agreement: no inclusion of civil society organisations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly.” Slovene diplomat Helena Drnovsek-Zovko first signed and soon disowned the agreement saying: “I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness, because I did not pay enough attention. […] First I apologised to my children. […] Let my example be a cautionary tale of how swiftly we can make mistakes if we allow ourselves to slip. And if nothing else, we then sleep very badly.” These are comments from people who have had the opportunity – a better opportunity than most people – to understand the intent behind ACTA.

ACTA has global consequences for almost everyone in the world and in various important aspects of life and economy. Cablegate revealed that ACTA was executed the way it was because it was clear that it was an extreme copyright agreement, that the initial target countries (USA, Japan, EU) were just the start and that poorer countries would be coerced into the agreement. By the way, it is exactly this kind of information that some governments were extremely unhappy to see published on WikiLeaks and it is why WikiLeaks is being hammered as brutally as it is, with absolutely no regard for law or justice. Returning to ACTA, the agreement would effectively force ISPs, web sites like Google’s, Wikipedia’s and every forum host on the Web to police their users because the sites’ maintainers would be liable for their users’ content. As for the secrecy issue, the fact that someone tried to push through these kinds of changes in secret should raise the hair on your neck. Some good comes out of such situations, nevertheless: when we get to know who is behind scams like this one, we can label these people as crooks – informally, at least – and treat them as such. MPAA, RIAA, Barack Obama, Susan Schwab head the list but more names are still to come: keep an eye out for them.

ACTA would have changed the basic paradigm of the Web. I have mentioned sites like Google and Wikipedia, but it warrants a more in-depth clarification. One of the ideas behind ACTA was to make service providers (like WordPress, which hosts this article) liable for their users’ illegal activities. Youtube receives tens of hours of uploaded video every minute: there is no practical way they can filter incoming content and make sure it does not violate someone’s copyright somewhere. Google provides links to web pages based on user queries: it would have to determine which pages violate someone’s “intellectual property” and filter those out from the search. Google mail would have to hide such content from mails. WordPress would be liable if I were to add a link in this article to a copyrighted song. Twitter, Facebook, all forums, all mailing list interfaces, all web-mail services, all search engines, all wikis, all websites which allow commenting – all these services would face the impossible or extremely difficult task of policing their users’ content or, more likely, these services would never have seen the light of day had ACTA been signed 15 years ago. I used the past tense because ACTA has been changed so this horrendous provision is no longer a part of it, but I mentioned it for a reason. The provision illustrates both the intent, attitude and frame of mind of people behind the agreement: it illustrates how far they are willing to go and what they would have us sacrifice so that they don’t have to adapt to a new world in which time has come for different business models. My point is that the authors and proponents of this agreement must not be trusted and any plan of theirs has to be detected early and stopped dead in its tracks.

To remove any remaining doubt about the last point, ACTA aims to equate generic and counterfeit drugs. Generic drugs are perfectly legal drugs produced typically in developing and poor countries where they achieve good results. Pharmaceutical companies, however, do not like it when someone can do without them and it appears they have managed to put provisions in ACTA to secure their interests as well. The price? Even tighter limitations of medical options in poor countries, lower drug availability and, consequently, more suffering and death globally. If this was all that ACTA was about, it would be reason enough to throw it out the window, identify the people who wrote the provisions related to generic drugs and strip them of any power or influence for life.

To conclude, ACTA is an agreement which trades general privacy and freedom for supposed protection of “intellectual property” rights. To achieve that goal, it requires surveillance on a never before seen scale in the digital world, reaching all Internet users. It promotes Digital Restrictions Management, i.e. DRM and criminalises any attempt to circumvent the system, even when it was not done in an attempt to infringe on copyright. It provides a powerful censoring tool which would empower governments to effectively turn freedom of speech off with the flip of a switch. In the words of a representative of the MPAA, one of the key organisations behind ACTA, “bring in a censoring firewall to block piracy and you can use it to shut off sites that embarrass your government, like Wikileaks.” That is his sales pitch to a government. ACTA’s reach extends far beyond the Internet and represents one of the most dangerous documents to civil society and the world’s economies in recent history. There is every reason to distrust the people behind it: it should not be accepted in any version, as long as any of the original architects of the agreement have a say in it.

The EU as a union has not accepted the agreement and the decision is scheduled for June 2012. Without the EU, ACTA will effectively be reduced to a bad dream. Do as Kader Arif did and say “I will not take part in this masquerade.” Instead, take part in the global effort to stop it, start by signing the petition and don’t let it stop there.


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