Germany has stepped back from signing the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, amid growing reluctance to ratify the international pact.
Germany, one of the five EU members that has not signed ACTA, has put its next step on hold.
The country's Auswärtiges Amt, or foreign office, has withdrawn instructions to sign ACTA, an international agreement aimed at harmonising copyright enforcement around the world. A German government source told ZDNet UK on Friday the government will postpone its decision on whether it should sign or not until after the European Parliament has voted on the treaty in June.
If any EU member state does not both sign and ratify ACTA, the agreement cannot enter into force anywhere in the union, the European Commission has told ZDNet UK. The European Parliament also has to ratify the document for it to apply in the EU.
Defenders of ACTA, including EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht and US president Barack Obama, have said the pact is needed to make sure the relatively high standards of copyright enforcement in the EU and US are upheld throughout the rest of the world.
However, critics have noted that the agreement was drawn up behind closed doors with no input from citizens' rights groups. They say ACTA's digital provisions could turn small-scale copyright infringement and even some legitimate online activities into crimes, while potentially crimping free expression.
In late January, 22 EU member states and the European Commission signed ACTA, joining Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and the US. However, not one of these signatories has ratified ACTA yet — a necessary step if it is to be viable.
The EU countries that have not signed ACTA include Germany, Cyprus, Estonia, the Netherlands and Slovakia. De Gucht said last week that this was "either because of the minimum time required for completing their internal procedures, or because they did not currently have an ambassador in Tokyo and will therefore need to send an envoy".
However, the German government source said on Friday the issue of ACTA has become a "complicated discussion" within Germany's coalition government, with the dominant and conservative CDU party in favour of ACTA, and their liberal minority partner, the FDP, against it.
"The German foreign minister [Guido Westerwelle, of the FDP] has decided to withdraw the formal signing of ACTA," the source said.
The source explained that Westerwelle's decision is "not binding Germany in any direction", and no further decision on ACTA will be taken until the European Parliament has examined the agreement and voted on its EU-level ratification. This is scheduled to happen in mid-June.
"It's a decision which makes it possible for the European Parliament to discuss all the necessary questions. We want the European Parliament to decide," the source said.
Some European states that did sign have halted their ratification processes, for now at least. Poland was the first to pull back with an announcement last Friday, joined by the Czech Republic and, as of Wednesday, Latvia. Slovakia, which has not signed, has also called a temporary halt to ACTA's progress there, pending further consultations.
The decision to suspend Latvia's progress on ACTA came from economic minister Daniels Pavluts, who reportedly said that ratification should only follow "a constructive and reasoned dialogue and a discussion with all the interested parties".
"Despite the fact that the ACTA agreement took several years to be developed, still a number of community groups have raised concern, reflecting the public distrust in the state power and its organs," Pavluts said, quoted in a report by Latvian news agency Leta.
"Such an attitude towards the government has developed in the recent years because of the lack of a genuine dialogue between the power and the society. Restoring this confidence is a new task for the government," he added.
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