The UK and 21 other European Union member states have signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, better known as ACTA.
The countries signed the treaty, which aims to harmonise copyright
enforcement across much of the world, in Tokyo on Thursday. However,
the signatures of the EU member states and the EU itself will count for nothing unless
the European Parliament gives its approval to ACTA
in June, and digital activists have urged citizens to lobby their MEPs
against voting yes.
Only five EU countries did not sign ACTA, which aims to harmonise copyright enforcement.
Poland, which was one of the signatories, saw thousands
demonstrate in the streets on Wednesday, protesting against the
An EU diplomat also added his signature. However, five EU countries did not sign, namely Germany, the Netherlands,
Estonia, Cyprus and Slovakia. Many other countries, such as the US,
Japan and Australia, signed
the document in September.
Although ACTA is primarily concerned with the enforcement of
intellectual property rights (IPR), its designation as a trade treaty
meant it could be negotiated behind
closed doors. This lengthy process, led by the US and Japan, was
exposed in a series
of leaks — some via Wikileaks — that revealed what was
The final version of ACTA is very different to earlier drafts,
which would have forced countries to disconnect internet users if they
were found to be repeatedly sharing copyrighted content. The EU
rejected this proposal, and other ideas, such as criminalising the
use of a mobile phone camera in a cinema, also fell by the wayside.
The European Commission maintains that ACTA will not require any
legal changes in the Union. It argues that the treaty will align
IPR enforcement standards in other countries with those already
enshrined in EU legislation.
"It simply does not change EU law," trade commission spokesman John
Clancy told ZDNet UK. "The freedom of the internet that
existed before — people's access and the way they use the internet — will
not change because of ACTA."
"The ACTA agreement is about trying to
bring other key partners' standards of intellectual property
protection up to the level of the EU and other leading players in
IPR," he said.
Threat to freedom of speech?
Others say the toned-down treaty still poses a threat. La Quadrature du Net, for example, has complained that
ACTA will lead to harsher copyright infringement laws in non-EU countries lacking the freedom-of-speech safeguards of the EU.
digital rights organisation has also argued that the agreement will make it harder to
make and distribute generic medicines.
"In the last few days, we have seen encouraging protests by Polish
and other EU citizens, who are rightly concerned with the effect of
ACTA on freedom of expression, access to medicines, but also access to
culture and knowledge," La Quad spokesman Jérémie Zimmermann said in a statement.
"This important movement will further build up," Zimmermann added,
noting the defeat in the US of the SOPA and PIPA copyright enforcement bills.
"European citizens must reclaim democracy, against the harmful
influence of corporate interests over global policy-making."
European Parliament vote
Regardless of the signatures that took place on Thursday, ACTA will
not become EU law if the European Parliament votes against it in June.
Should this happen, the signatures of the 22 EU member states
and the EU itself would effectively be worthless.
The treaty will first have to be discussed by the EU International
Trade Committee (INTA) at the end of February or in early March, then
voted on by INTA in April or May.
The key final plenary vote is scheduled to take place in the European Parliament between 11 and 14 June. Until then, according to MEP
and INTA member Marietje Schaake, the "confidence boost"
following the defeat of SOPA and PIPA may provide a chance to head the
new treaty off.
"If you are concerned about ACTA, you can convince the EP to vote
against ACTA," Schaake noted on Wednesday in a Reddit
post. "In November 2010 we proposed an alternative resolution on
ACTA, which intended to take away the main concerns. It was voted
down by a very slight majority [... ] the difference is only 16
votes, out of 736 (or 754 as it stands now)."
"I believe internet offers tremendous opportunities to bring makers
of music, film and other cultural content closer to audiences at lower
prices," Schaake wrote. "However, while Europe offers the most
attractive and diverse content in the world, much of it is locked
copyright laws. Instead of focusing on enforcement, we must focus
on reform, while keeping in mind that it is not the government's job
to preserve certain business models against the forces of the free
Commission spokesman Clancy also pointed to the importance of the
creative industries to the EU economy, referring to intellectual
property as "Europe's raw material".
However, while Clancy said the Commission urged MEPs to back ACTA, he conceded that "if
they say no, it's entirely rejected — it's back to the drawing
"The signature ceremony in Tokyo was just another step in the
procedure that allows ACTA to now be taken to the European Parliament
for a free, open and vigorous debate that we fully support," he said.