Government of the people, by the lobby groups, for the corporations…
European officials probably thought that no-one would take much notice when they signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a controversial international treaty on intellectual property rights. Two months later, mass protests have erupted in cities all across Europe against the treaty, amid criticisms about the secretive nature in which it was negotiated and fears that it will lead to a significant curtailing of internet freedom.This is one of the first times a decision by the EU has provoked such a united response right across Europe.
From Paris to Prague, Vilnius to Vienna, thousands of protestors are braving the bitterly cold conditions to make their voice heard.
The international nature of the response seems to follow in the same trend set by the ‘Occupy’ movement, with many protesters wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from ‘V for Vendetta’ whose sinister grin became the trademark of the global anti-capitalist protests. Another similarity, fitting for a protest aiming to protect free speech online, is the way in which many people have been mobilised through the internet and social networking sites.
Yet whilst Occupy has been criticised for its lack of direction and its failure to make specific demands, the anti-ACTA protests are mobilised around a single, explicit issue. As well as organising demos and providing flyers in ten European languages, the website ‘Stop ACTA’ encourages people to take other actions such as lobbying their MEPs. This is symptomatic of a new form of protest, in which the younger generations not only go out onto the streets to denounce the system but actually try to have a real, tangible influence on political decisions.
These protestors have been emboldened by the success of the anti-SOPA and PIPA protests in the US, which caused the proposed anti-piracy bills to be withdrawn for reconsideration. The ‘Internet Blackout’ on January 20th by Wikipedia, Google, Reddit and countless other websites demonstrated the sheer power of online protest; by the end of the day the story featured on the front pages of newspapers across the country, 10 million people had signed online petitions against the bills and the White House had received 8 million emails calling for them to be withdrawn.
This was an example of the huge potential influence of the internet over politicians, and its ability to prevail against vested commercial interests and lobbying groups. The massive publicity over SOPA and PIPA also put their international equivalent, ACTA, firmly into the limelight after years of limited public interest.
Negotiations over ACTA first began in 2006 between the US, Japan, and a handful of other wealthy countries, but these were held behind closed doors with no potential for public discussion. Only in 2008, when Wikileaks uploaded a discussion paper about the treaty, did it first really come to people’s attention. Public interest groups, academics and civil activists began to criticise the secretive way in which ACTA was being planned, and the exclusion of developing countries as well as civil society from the discussions. Also alarming was the extent of the involvement of powerful lobbying groups in the US, such as the Motion Picture Association of America.
That particular organisation set alarm bells ringing after it reportedly advised governments that anti-piracy firewalls could be used to censor potentially embarrassing sites like Wikileaks.
However, such reservations received scant attention and therefore did little to disrupt the signing of the treaty last year by the USand seven other countries. It was only when the EU signed up to the treaty along with 22 of its member states last month that the real uproar began. Here there has been more space for a public debate. ACTA must now be signed by the five remaining members, and must also be ratified by each national parliament and the European Parliament, which is set to debate the treaty in June.
Significantly, French MEP Kader Arif and ACTA rapporteur for the European Parliament resigned in protest after denouncing the whole process as a ‘charade.’ Arif claimed that the EP had not been properly informed during the course of the negotiations and that concerns raised by the institution had been repeatedly sidelined, undermining its ability to fulfil its role as a representative of the people. He also argued that the treaty would not only limit online freedoms, but could also restrict access to vital generic drugs in developing countries.
Such concerns were echoed by protestors across Europe. In particular, Polandhas seen fierce opposition to the government’s signing of the treaty, causing Prime Minister Donald Tusk to backtrack and suspend ratification of ACTA in the Polish Parliament. The rest of Eastern Europe has also seen a significant public backlash, perhaps due to fears of a return to the government censorship of the Communist Era, although perhaps in part also due to the prevalence of video and music piracy amongst many young people.
In response to concerns about the potential implications of the treaty and accusations over its lack of transparency, the European Commission has released a document entitled “10 Myths about ACTA.” In it, the Commission argues that the agreement will not require any changes in EU law, that it contains sufficient safeguards to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, and it would not restrict access to generic medicines. It also emphasised that the treaty has been purposefully drafted in very ‘flexible’ terms. However, it is precisely this vague wording which has most worried critics, as it would allow governments so much room for interpretation.
The most striking characteristic of ACTA has been the significant influence of private interests and the exclusion of the general public. To rephrase Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, it is essentially:
government of the people, for the corporations, by the lobby groups
However, just like last month’s protests against SOPA and PIPA, the anti-ACTA movement has also shown how when properly mobilised citizens can have a real impact on policy.
In addition, despite growing fears in Europe about rising nationalism, it has been a potent example of how protests against the EU’s actions can be combined with a sense of European solidarity, with protestors working together across national boundaries. Increasingly then, the covert influence of corporate interests is being held to account by an active international citizenry, united by the mobilising power of the internet.
It is therefore doubly important that we ensure that the freedom of the internet is not put at risk, and that ACTA receives the proper public scrutiny which it deserves.
Paul Haydon is currently studying a masters in European Public Policy at University College London. He has previously worked at the European Parliament, and at a magazine in Shanghai, China. You can read his blog here