Ministers from around the European Union have quietly approved the watered-down Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.
The Council of the European Union, which comprises ministers from the governments of member states, announced their approval towards the bottom of a statement (PDF) that was ostensibly about fisheries. The treaty describes new measures to combat copyright infringement on an international scale, and still needs the green light from the European Parliament before it has full EU approval.
"The Council adopted a decision authorising the signing of an anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA) with Australia, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States," the Council statement read.
Most of those participants in the ACTA talks have already signed the document. However, the EU, Mexico and Switzerland stayed away from the signing ceremony as their national — or, in the case of the EU, supranational — governments had not yet approved the treaty. The deadline for signing ACTA is 31 March 2013.
The European Parliament will still have to approve ACTA before the EU can sign. As the parliament passed a resolution in favour of that signature in late 2010, this approval is likely to come.
As various leaks have demonstrated, ACTA's chief progenitors were the US and Japan, who wanted a new international agreement on civil and criminal enforcement of copyright trademarks.
Despite its nature, ACTA was pitched as a trade treaty, which made it possible to conduct negotiations behind closed doors. This fact outraged civil rights groups and even some members of the European Parliament.
However, a slow but steady stream of leaked drafts showed how some of ACTA's most strident provisions were falling off as negotiations continued. These provisions included a broad ban on any tool that could be used for copyright infringement or DRM circumvention, and an obligation on signatories to introduce 'three-strikes' laws for disconnecting repeat infringers.
The final version of ACTA is so watered-down that the US has now turned its attention to similar but separate Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam and Malaysia.
However, La Quadrature du Net, a French digital rights organisation, said ACTA still poses a threat.
"Our governments are bypassing democratic processes to impose draconian repressive measures," group spokesperson Jérémie Zimmermann said in a statement. "They know that such measures would be very difficult to obtain through regular legislative process, so they have them imposed through the back door."
"By privatising online censorship in the name of copyright, ACTA would have a dreadful impact on our freedoms online, but also on innovation and growth for internet companies. The European Parliament is our last chance to reject ACTA. We, as citizens, must act now," Zimmermann added.