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SOPA, PIPA and now ACTA … the acronyms that are mobilizing the EU online community

30. January 2012 – 15:40 by John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

Europeans who have felt left out in the past few weeks have now got their very own achronym to rally around. Hot on the heels of the successful campaign against SOPA (“Stop Online Piracy Act”) and PIPA (“Protect Intellectual Property Act”) comes ACTA (“Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement”).

A secretly-negotiated deal to protect intellectual property would always be something for the net community to get worked up about. Following the signature of the treaty, only MEPs can block it. They are the targets of an Avaaz petition, which has just rolled over the million mark at the time of writing, imploring them not to let it through.

ACTA is an international treaty aimed at preventing trade in counterfeit goods, with implications for alleged copyright infringements on the internet. The treaty, which has attracted controversy because it was negotiated in private, has been adopted by the EU but still needs formal ratification by the EU Parliament. The provision of ACTA that is most controversial is article 27 (4):

“A Party may provide, in accordance with its laws and regulations, its competent authorities with the authority to 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 that right holder has filed a legally sufficient claim of trademark or copyright or related rights infringement, and where such information is being sought for the purpose of protecting or enforcing those rights.”

In other words, the treaty suggests that signatory countries may want to empower their authorities to force website owners to hand over users’ details, if they are alleged to have used their account for unlawful purposes. As opponents argue, requiring service providers to divulge information about users is problematic for services that encrypt information in a way that means that they themselves cannot access it. It also means that infrastructure is put into place that can be abused for less peaceful purposes such as threatening privacy rights and freedom of expression.

Kader Arif, French MEP and rapporteur for the treaty, resigned as a result of the signing. (In case you’re wondering what a rapporteur is/does: here’s a description.) As reported in the Telegraph, Polish MPs covered their faces with masks from the political hacker group Anonymous and there have been street protests in Poland against the treaty.

Gathering around the hashtag #acta, there are already calls for street protests in other countries including Germany. Between now and June, when the vote in the Parliament is due to be held, we will find out whether net advocates in Europe will come into their own in the same way that they did in the US.

Thanks to Daniel van Lerberghe for this article’s new improved title!

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