The EU Parliament has rejected the controversial global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The decision is a victory for thousands of Europeans who took to the streets in furious protest against ACTA.
For months, Jan Philipp Albrecht has been fighting against ACTA. Albrecht is a German Green Party member of the European Parliament, and he has been one of the driving forces in Brussels working to prevent the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Albrecht, 30, is savoring his triumph, but he is well-aware that the rejection by parliament is largely due to intense pressure from citizens across Europe.
Certainly the EU-wide protests contributed to "enhancing the European Parliament's regard for the ACTA opponents' arguments," he told DW. "That put pressure on the major parties to decide whether they were in favor of or against the accord." It was clear the plenary session would reject the treaty, he said, once five key EU parliamentary committees also detected grave flaws in the proposed agreement.
Putting an end to product piracy
Albrecht said the successful influence of public opinion on the ACTA voting process is an acknowledgement of democratic procedures in the EU. The EU parliament takes citizens seriously, he says: "Parties can't afford to simply nod something through if there's such major criticism of the contents."
The trade agreement was meant well: ACTA was designed to curtail imports of fake brand-name products from the Far East and create international standards in the fight against intellectual property theft on the internet, such as illegal downloads of videos and music. It's estimated that Europe alone loses up to 8 billion euros ($10 billion) per year due to product piracy.
It is more difficult to quantify losses from illegal downloads. Germany's Music Industry Federation estimates damage from internet piracy at maybe hundreds of millions of euros and says it threatens tens of thousands of jobs in the creative sector.
The deal between the EU, the USA and 11 other states was in the pipeline for years. By January, the EU and ten other states had signed the finished accord but so far none of the signatories has ratified the deal. The difficulties lie in the details of the ACTA accord, and they triggered a wave of protest in many major European cities.
Internet users were at the forefront of the demonstrations; they feared heavy censorship and were concerned that copyright holders would be allowed to claim excessive damages from users even in cases of minor infringement.
ACTA opponents proposed pursuing those who offer illegal downloads more actively instead. Their criticism is that planners gave in to industry demands without giving sufficient consideration to the interests of developing and emerging nations.
Behind closed doors
ACTA critics also pointed out the deliberations took place largely behind close doors. "That's true," Albrecht says. "For years the treaty was negotiated behind closed doors. A few delegates were involved, but there was no real public debate about fundamental decisions."
The German Christian Democrat Daniel Caspary is one of many conservatives in the European Parliament who regret the vote. The treaty would have marked progress in copyright issues, he says. "Tens-of-thousands of jobs in the EU are at risk or lost because of product piracy," he told DW. The health of millions of consumers is endangered by fake or substandard products. "Today, we passed up a chance to improve all that," he says.
Caspary says it was always important to him that ACTA would not have changed anything for EU citizens. "We aren't interested in an adjustment within the EU, we want to export our standards, like we do in human rights, environmental and social areas - that's what we want to do concerning intellectual property rights, too."
Most of the criticism of ACTA is unfounded, Caspary says, adding much of the misinformation was founded on leaked drafts; false information was spread deliberately, too. There were videos on the internet "which ridiculed ACTA and made totally false claims that aren't even in the treaty's text, but they alienated many people, especially the young." Caspary admits, however, that there could have been a better information policy on behalf of those supporting ACTA.
Albrecht regards the turmoil surrounding ACTA as a trigger to incite "an honest and open debate about protecting intellectual property - starting out in Europe, before one starts thinking about a treaty on an international level." Albrecht says the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) have regulations the EU might be able to develop further.
So, ACTA has been shelved, even if the highest EU court has to examine the agreement at the request of the European Commission. The court's ruling will not make a difference.
Meanwhile, experts in Brussels seem already to have come up with a Plan B: There's an IPRED (Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive) lying in Brussels drawers ready to go. Regulations passed eight years ago are being revised. There are plans to block sites with content which breaks copyright law.
The US has come up with internet legislation of its own: CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act), designed to help better protect infrastructure in the net by allowing companies and authorities to exchange information on cyber attacks. Under the act, Facebook and Google would share private data without the user's prior knowledge.
No matter what happens next, the EU Parliament's rejection of ACTA may put an end to a bad habit among EU politicians in Brussels. Perhaps in future, important decisions will no longer be negotiated by small groups of politicians and lobbyists, but be debated with the widest possible public participation.
Author: Ralf Bosen / db
Editor: Michael Lawton