A controversial international trade agreement, which campaigners fear would restrict internet freedom looks likely to be delayed or scrapped, the latest in a string of measures planned to combat online piracy to falter in the face of co-ordinated protests.
The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, is set to join SOPA and PIPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act – two US planned laws designed to boost copyright enforcement, which were shelved last month after sophisticated online campaigns.
The fight against ACTA has centred on Europe, even though the US, Australia, Japan and seven others are participants alongside the European Union’s 27 governments.
Anti-ACTA campaigners are worried that heavy-handed measures to crack down against illegal file-sharing included in the wide-ranging trade pact will compromise internet freedom.
They are planning hundreds of protests across Europe on Saturday, spanning Vienna to Edinburgh, Athens and Strasbourg. At least one march is planned in each of the EU’s 27 member states.
Though ACTA has already been signed or initialled by all EU governments, it requires ratification by all 27 national parliaments as well as the European Parliament in Brussels.
That process looks to have been derailed by the anti-ACTA activists, particularly in central and eastern Europe.
The issue has stirred up deep passions there, where access to the internet is seen as one of the rewards of belonging to a democratic society. Illegal downloading is also popular, in part because those societies are poorer than those in western Europe, and in part because many content providers have made it difficult for central Europeans to buy music and films legally online.
In Poland, premier Donald Tusk halted the ratification process when demonstrations and hacking attacks made clear the depth of public discontent. Mr Tusk hurriedly summoned a public consultation, where he and ministers writhed for seven hours while being pilloried by online activists.
Mr Tusk admitted that he had seen the issue “in a 20th century way”.
“We have to ensure that ACTA is 100 per cent safe for citizens,” he said. “Until we have clarified all doubts, the ratification process for ACTA will be suspended, and it cannot be that in the end that may mean a lack of acceptance for this agreement.”
The Czech Republic and Slovakia also halted ratification when faced with protests.
“The government would never allow a situation where civic freedoms and free access to information would be threatened,” Petr Necas, the Czech prime minister, said on Monday, the same day that hackers said that they had attacked the website of his Civic Democratic party and stolen data on party members.
The European Parliament, whose website has been attacked, could also delay proceedings. David Martin, the MEP charged with organising the chamber’s response to ACTA, says he wants to canvas views broadly before making a recommendation, including getting a legal opinion from the European Court of Justice.
“Realistically, if we go down this route we are looking at a vote in the spring of 2013,” he warns.
That may give enough time for the post-SOPA venom to clear, says one diplomat involved in negotiating the treaty. At that point, hesitant governments could quietly push for parliamentary ratification in Brussels and national capitals.
Though technically a trade agreement, ACTA’s avowed aim is to co-ordinate the way developed economies’ tackle counterfeit goods, many of them of it coming from China and Russia.
The pact includes provisions on stamping out the traffic in fraudulent Louis Vuitton bags and fake Viagra pills, but it is the measures that relate to the online world which have been most controversial, particularly those that call for some forms of copyright infringement to be treated as a criminal offence.
In the case of SOPA and PIPA, a one-day blackout of Wikipedia, one of the world’s most popular website, last month served to catch the global public’s attention and force legislators in Washington to climb down.
The European Commission, which negotiated the treaty on behalf of the EU, says SOPA will not alter norms on combating copyright infringement in Europe.
“Freedom of speech is a core European value. It’s simply misleading to suggest that ACTA would limit the freedom of the internet,” a spokesman said.