EU Parliament Chief Speaks out Against ACTA

The head of the European Parliament has spoken out against the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) as thousands took to the streets across Europe to protest the deal.

The Parliament's new chief, Martin Schulz, said on German TV Sunday that the agreement lacks balance between protecting copyright and protecting the rights of Internet users. Meanwhile anti-ACTA marches were held in the U.K., Germany, Poland and the Netherlands. An estimated 15,000 protesters turned out in Munich with a further 10,000 in Berlin.

Germany is the latest country to halt ratification of the treaty. The government said it will wait until after the European Parliament has voted in June before making a decision. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia have also put their ratification on hold.

The European Commission, which negotiated the deal, has attempted to allay fears about the deal, but with even those opposed to the deal admitting that there is much misinformation about, the pressure seems unlikely to decrease.

Some of the more alarmist suggestions from protesters, for example that private MP3 players would be inspected at borders, are specifically ruled out by the treaty. "A party may exclude from the application small quantities of goods of a non-commercial nature contained in travelers' personal luggage," reads the current text.

The deal also states that in implementing the treaty, countries "shall take into account the need for proportionality between the seriousness of the infringement, the interests of third parties, and the applicable measures, remedies and penalties."

As the agreement stands it will not create laws and it is up to individual countries to decide how to implement it.

Nonetheless, some paragraphs still contain potentially worrying news for hactivists: "A party may ... order an online service provider to disclose expeditiously to a right holder information sufficient to identify a subscriber whose account was allegedly used for infringement ... where such information is being sought for the purpose of protecting or enforcing those rights." Many are furious that ISPs could thus become the Internet's unofficial police force.

This text has been somewhat watered down from the original wording, which said that parties "shall" provide laws to demand information from ISPs. But sources close to the negotiations said that ACTA can be seen as suggesting "what is considered best practice," which may be interpreted as encouraging countries to introduce draconian measures such as the so-called three-strikes rule.

Other protesters are concerned about the potential penalties. National authorities would be able to impose financial penalties on an infringer who, knowingly "or with reasonable grounds to know," engaged in infringing activity such as illegally downloading music or a film. These penalties could be the value of the infringed goods or services measured by the market price, or the suggested retail price.

The proposed agreement would also place sanctions against any device or software that is marketed as a means of circumventing access controls such as encryption or scrambling that are designed to prevent copying. It also requires legal measures against knowingly using such technology. This crackdown could have implications for so-called dual-purpose technology, which also has totally legitimate applications.

However, ACTA's final battleground will be in the European Parliament. The European Union cannot go ahead to ratify the treaty unless parliamentarians back it in a vote in June. When the deal last went before the Parliament in November 2010, it was only very narrowly passed -- 331 to 294, with 11 abstentions.

Even with the approved vote, Parliament sought additional assurances from the Commission. However many parliamentarians are still angry that the agreement was pushed through in an "undemocratic" way. Negotiations were carried out in secret with "never-before-seen maneuvers" according to the last member of Parliament charged with evaluating ACTA. The member of Parliament, Kader Arif, resigned in protest at the lack of transparency surrounding the deal last month.

Parliament's international trade committee will discuss the agreement on Feb. 29. It must then reach an opinion that it will put to the rest of Parliament. The full vote in plenary is scheduled for June.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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