The global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) treaty aims to combat copied products and reduce online piracy. But its fine print remains a source of heated debate. Now the European Parliament wants to have a say.
After seeing thousands of people in Europe take to the streets in protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), politicians are now acknowledging the importance of the issue. Numerous countries, including Germany, have postponed ratifying the agreement. German Federal Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger speaks of "open issues."
Brussels has also responded. The European Commission has asked the European Court of Justice to check whether ACTA is in line with EU law. And now the European Parliament wants to be involved.
ACTA, which had been on the negotiating table for three years, can go into effect in Europe if it is ratified by the EU member states and approved by the European Parliament. But the national governments have conspicuously stayed out of the discussions. They seem to prefer having Brussels deal with making a decision on the controversial issue.
Need to explain positions
"The member states have demanded such an agreement for years," European Parliamentarian Bernd Lange told DW. "Now that society is rightly discussing the issue, they're saying 'Europe needs to decide.'"
On Wednesday, the trade committee of the European Parliament will publicly debate ACTA. Other committees will also explain their positions. Following the debate and expert hearings, the plenary assembly of the European Parliament will vote on the treaty.
ACTA was initially welcomed with huge support. The agreement was hammered out by a string of countries, including the US, Australia and Japan, as well as the European Union. Its goal is to protect intellectual property rights with a legal framework that targets counterfeit goods, generic drugs and copyright infringement on the Internet.
Industrialized nations, in particular, would benefit from ACTA. They suffer immensely from counterfeited luxury products and other violations of intellectual property rights. According to the European Commission, counterfeited products account annually for a loss in revenue of about 8 billion euros. While most of the involved parties agree in principle on the need to halt the piracy of both tangible goods and digital property, they continue to argue over the details; some passages of the agreement are, indeed, open to interpretation.
Internet users in Europe are particularly concerned. They worry that with ACTA, Internet service providers could monitor traffic more intensively and rights holders would seek huge compensation from violators.
The European parliamentarian Jan-Philipp Albrecht, a member of the Green Party, was opposed to ACTA from the beginning. "In the area of copyrights, measures are being proposed that are very oppressive toward Internet users," Albrecht told DW. "Instead of prosecuting users, those providing infringed material should be taken to court."
Not in liine with the rules
A further problem, according to Albrecht, is that not all countries have participated in formulating the agreement. This is not in line with the rules of the international community. "If you aim to reach an agreement on combating product piracy, you need to include all nations, especially developing countries and emerging markets" he said.
Albrecht shares the fear of some relief organizations that ACTA could complicate trade with generic drugs. These drugs are typically less expensive than the original products and are thus important for people in poor countries.
Even if support for ACTA is crumbling, not all politicians are turning their backs to the treaty. European parliamentarian Daniel Caspary sees a positive side. "ACTA is a milestone in the battle against product piracy," he said on this homepage. But he doesn't view the agreement as an optimal solution given the limited number of countries on board.
If and when ACTA will ever come to Europe is unclear. The European Parliament has no deadline to make a decision. Because the treaty raises numerous legal questions, the European Commission is expected to wait for the opinion of the European Court of Justice. This could take weeks, if not months. In the meantime, Albrecht expects a heated debate in Brussels.
If the European Parliament approves ACTA, the European Council, which represents the heads of European governments, can declare the agreement as binding. If the EU parliamentarians don't approve it, the treaty is dead. The current version would no longer apply and all details would need to be renegotiated. So far, the European Parliament has rejected two agreements: SWIFT, which would have allowed confidential EU financial data to be forwarded to US authorities; and a fishing agreement with Morocco.
Author: Ralf Bosen / jrb
Editor: Joanna Impey