How Sweet It Is! Internet Activists Defeat ACTA

Hollywood and the record industry got some serious comeuppance when the European Parliament overwhelmingly defeated a copyright maximalist treaty by a 478 to 39 vote on Wednesday.  Ouch!  This is a very sweet moment to savor. 

The content industries and trade representatives had been negotiating the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement for six years behind closed doors.  Civil society organizations were absolutely barred from the process even though industry players had full and complete access and participation.  The proposed changes to copyright law would have empowered copyright industries to throttle free speech on the Internet without due process; allow users to be barred access to Internet accounts; and force Internet service providers to act as copyright police by patrolling users’ web habits. 

The idea behind the ACTA treaty was to negotiate a new global standard of strict copyright standards.  It was also a sly tactical feint to use international policy venues to help impose stiff copyright rules on the US without having to go through the US Senate for treaty ratification (Obama could simply sign it as an “executive agreement”).  The point of this subterfuge was to avoid any bruising public debate about or political fallout from much-hated provisions of the agreement.

The defeat of ACTA is a sweet moment because arrogant trade reps and industry moguls had airily dismissed critics.  They thought that their insider access, lobbying dollars and propaganda campaigns could just ram the whole stinkin’ mess through.  But after last year's huge Internet mobilization against SOPA and PIPA – the Stop Online Privacy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate – it was clear that Internet users were getting their act together as a political force.  That anti-SOPA, anti-PIPA effort stunned Congress; industry-backed legislation that had previously sailed through was stopped dead in its tracks.  The spell of the entertainment industry's cozy influence-peddling was broken, at least for a while.

What's significant here is that the social norms have now changed. It’s a political liability to be against Internet freedoms.  For their part, activists in Poland deserve a hearty salute for taking to the streets to protest ACTA months ago, a bold act that prompted many a European legislator to pause and reflect, "Why, this ACTA things might be a serious political liability for me!"  Protesters might actually direct angry public protests at them.  It is a measure of the vitality of European democracy that groups like La Quadrature du Net in France, the Free Culture Forum in Spain, the Access campaign, the Pirate Party, and many others (including from the US), were able to prevail.

Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International put it nicely:  “There is real democracy in Europe, and a real parliament.  And wow, what a social movement for fundamental rights! ACTA could never overcome its deficit in legitimacy and perspective. The US Congress has to take a deep breath and reign in USTR and other rogue anti-democratic agencies that are treating the public like enemies of the state.”

The Office of the US Trade Representative is already backpedaling and trying to re-position itself future stance on copyright matters.  For example, it has now publicly embraced the “limitations and exceptions” rules to copyright – things like fair use and the first sale doctrine – as “an important part of the copyright ecosystem.”  This is an amazing public shift.  As Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld put it, “For USTR to publicly embrace limitations and exceptions as is the equivalent of The Pope saying: ‘in some cases, birth control is a good thing because it allows married couples to have sex without procreation, deepening their emotional bond with one another.’”

The defeat of ACTA is also likely to shake up the corporate alliances that had previously showed a united front in pushing the treaty.  As Harold Feld noted, there are actual counterfeiting of goods that should be stopped, and there are legitimate intellectual property concerns that retailers, manufacturers and other industries have.  But because the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America were so adamant and arrogant in pushing for draconian copyright provisions, the IP concerns of other industries took a back seat -- only to find that ALL industry concerns were flushed down the toilet because of MPAA and RIAA over-reaching.  Don’t say that the public-interest crowd didn’t warn them!

Let’s just say that the MPAA, RIAA and key industry legislators will no longer be able to bluster their way past the democratic process in the future.  Internet culture is beginning to catch up with the corrupt lobbying games played by copyright industries and their insider friends. Some measure of real democracy (at least in Europe) survives. 

Technically, ACTA could come back to life.  It needs only six countries to ratify it.  But since Europe represents 27 out of the 37 countries that were negotiating the treaty, the likelihood that ACTA will be resurrected are dim. 

Apropos of these developments, there is a new Internet Freedom Declaration that needs your signature.  This is an attempt for leading Internet thinkers, activists, organizations and others to come behind some basic policy principles for the Internet.

Here is how the Declaration reads:

We stand for a free and open Internet.

We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:

Expression:Don't censor the Internet.

Access:Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.

Openness:Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.

Innovation:Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies, and don’t punish innovators for their users' actions.

Privacy:Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

You can sign on here