Slowly but surely ACTA is being pushed towards the waste paper basket. On 21 June, the European parliament’s International Trade Committee recommended rejecting the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement, aligning its position with the views already expressed by three other parliamentary committees (Civil Liberties, Industry, and Legal Affairs) which have announced their opposition to the treaty that is supposed to establish international rules for the regulation and enforcement of intellectual property rights.
Holding out until the bitter end, Commissioner Karel De Gucht, who led the team of European negotiators during talks on the agreement, defended the text, and went as far as to warn parliament that a negative vote will not result in the suspension of proceedings by the European Court of Justice, which is currently deliberating on ACTA’s compliance with fundamental rights, nor will it prevent a subsequent resubmission of the agreement to parliament in the wake of European elections in 2014. MEPs are set to vote on the text in the course of the parliament’s July 4 plenary session, and there is every indication that they will follow the recommendations issued by the parliamentary committees. If it is rejected, ACTA will not become law in the EU, even though 22 of the EU’s 27 members have already signed the accord.
ACTA is highly controversial both in terms of its form and the manner in which it was drafted. Negotiated over four years between 2006 and 2010, talks to develop the agreement took place outside of the supervisory framework of the World Trade Organisation and were largely held in secret until WikiLeaks revealed its existence. Perhaps even more critically, parliament will be required to approve or reject the agreement in its entirety and will not have the power to amend it.
ACTA is also controversial in terms of its content: the text is largely impenetrable with many imprecisions which leave it open to a wide range of interpretations. It threatens fundamental civil liberties with regard to the sharing of knowledge by placing the burden of proof on those who are charged with violations in the field of patents and in their exchange of information on the internet. All of this has led to an angry response from civil society, which has mobilised against ACTA by petitioning MEPs and organising demonstrations that have brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of several countries.
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The defeat of ACTA will be an important milestone. First and foremost, it will call into question traditional procedure in Brussels where texts are often negotiated by lobbyists and politicians. At the same time, the wide liberal-Green-left majority that has emerged to oppose the text, with support from the right and parliament’s conservatives, has demonstrated that protest and pressure from civil society can prevail over the interests of culture, pharmaceuticals and agro-alimentary industry lobbies.
Axing ACTA will send a clear message of support for transparency, which is the corollary of a functioning democracy, and highlight the disadvantages of secret negotiations and discreetly organised committees. It will show that public opinion is an effective force in Europe, that it can be mobilised to address crucial issues, and that the organisations which represent it actually function. Finally, it will be one further step towards the sanctuarisation of the Internet as a universal space for exchange, sharing and dialogue which plays an essential role in the lives of its users.
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