European Parliament slams digital copyright treaty

Secret negotiations over a once-obscure draft treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement prompted an unusual rebuke from the European Parliament.

The European Parliament took aim Wednesday at a secret intellectual property treaty that has been criticized for possibly giving copyright holders more power to pull the plug on peer-to-peer users.

By a remarkable vote of 633 to 13, the Parliament rebuked European negotiators who have been drafting the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in a series of confidential meetings around the globe. No version of the document has been disclosed by the participants, which include the United States, the European Commission, Japan, and Canada.

Parliament's resolution demands that the European Commission--the EU's executive branch--grant "public access" to the ACTA documents. If the negotiations are not sufficiently transparent, the resolution says, Parliament "reserves its right" to take legal action.

This is in part a tussle between two arms of government, each intent on protecting its own sphere of influence, with Parliament saying that it never gave approval for the treaty-negotiation process to begin with.

Whatever the reason, the lopsided vote was welcomed by liberal advocacy groups that have been opposing ACTA with little success of far. Public Knowledge said afterward: "This process for too long has been driven by the wishes of the big media companies. The European Parliament vote is yet another reminder that ACTA, both in process and in substance, is fatally flawed."

In Washington, secrecy over the details of ACTA has enjoyed bipartisan support: First, the Bush administration said in 2008 that it could not disclose information because it agreed with its trade partners to keep it confidential.

Then, in March 2009, the Obama administration declared that ACTA drafts were classified for "national security" reasons; it subsequently published a limited summary confirming that portions dealt with border inspections, criminal penalties, and perhaps holding Internet service providers liable for infringing material.

One recent point of contention has been whether ACTA will include a "three strikes" rule that could involve cutting off broadband users with limited or no judicial oversight. A leaked European Union document (PDF) from last fall that the Obama administration's negotiators had suggested "termination of subscriptions" to Internet access in some circumstances.

A more recent leak in the last week of an ACTA working document provides some hints about each nation's negotiating position. The United States has taken probably the most expansive view of copyright, which includes pushing for a global version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's anti-circumvention rules, and suggesting broader language related to investigations.

The next closed-door ACTA meeting appears to be in New Zealand next month.

 

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