Secret ACTA bill shakes the web

With the online community seemingly victorious in defeating the SOPA/PIPA bills in the US, you might think a collective sigh of relief would be in order.

Attention on the SOPA fight is now quickly turning to another highly controversial attempt to protect intellectual property, which could allow for significantly greater powers to monitor web users. And the EU could be set to sign up despite strong opposition.

The secretive Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) might not be new, but it is shaping up to be the next target for protests by a galvanised online community.  In fact, the ACTA treaty has been drawing condemnation from all manner of groups intent on protecting their rights, since it was leaked that the US, EU and various nations would negotiate treaty content.

Australia, Canada, Japan, Republic of Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, and the US have all signed up to ACTA, while the EU and others have indicated a commitment to do so at a later stage.

There has been an air of secrecy about what’s actually going into the bill. At first, it was thought that negotiations were mostly about physical goods.  However, a series of leaks highlighted intentions to cover “internet distribution and information technology”, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Under rules being put forward by the treaty, ISPs would be actively encouraged to monitor web users to make sure that IP infringement was not taking place.  For the average web user it would be a catastrophic blow to freedom online.

What is particularly is that it undermines the democratic debate of existing IP monitoring bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the World Trade Organisation.

Aside from a lack of transparency, controversy has also surrounded the relatively small group of countries involved in the ongoing talks, with many developing nations left out of discussions.  

This means that wealthy countries looking to push a hard line on IP laws will be able to decide which rules they want in place with little opportunity for change at a later date. Even in the nations in talks there is little inclusion by “civil society”, as the EFF puts it.

Not that there haven’t been attempts to stop more countries signing up.  An e-petition has been handed to British Parliament demanding a ‘no’ vote. Meanwhile aa group of Polish hackers targeted domestic government websites to fight the treaty.  There is also talk of a Polish Wikipedia blackout similar to the opposition against SOPA.

While those in charge may want to edge out any voices of discontent, it’s clear there is no shortage of those ready to make themselves heard.

Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties and privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, is someone who actively opposes the treaty: “Perhaps the most worrying aspect of these proposals is how little is known about them,” he said to TechEye. “While on the surface purporting to be about counterfeit goods, ACTA actually proposes the same kind of intrusive surveillance of our internet activity that was abandoned in the US last week after huge public outcry.

“Much more needs to be done to combat counterfeit goods and piracy, but underhand laws that give governments draconian powers to censor the internet without a judicial process is not the way forward. As recognised in the SOPA and PIPA debate, the kind of web-blocking proposed actually makes the internet less secure and will harm consumers and creators alike.”

Pickles continued: “When laws are debated and formulated behind closed doors, without public scrutiny, it is right to question whether those laws have the best interests of citizens at heart, or whether they are the product of special interests and lobbying.”