Technology & Science

Consumer advocates declare war on copyright treaty

The latest round of talks on ACTA kicked off in Mexico on Tuesday, and so did a new wave of opposition to the secret trade treaty.

The latest round of talks on a global anti-counterfeiting agreement kicked off in Mexico on Tuesday, and so did a new wave of opposition to the secret treaty.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which is being negotiated privately by Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, United States and a few other governments, is galvanizing consumer and civil liberties groups.

A number of these organizations on Monday launched a joint declaration of war on ACTA, which they say threatens the fundamental freedoms of the people living in member countries. The treaty is being motivated by U.S. entertainment lobbies, and would allow internet providers to spy on customers and criminalize the everyday behaviour of millions of people, they said.

"This agreement will restrain certain rights and freedoms, particularly freedom of expression and protection of privacy," the declaration said. "It is extremely disconcerting to know that certain American industries have had access to ACTA documents, while the European Parliament and consumer groups have been refused such access."

Leaked documents from the ACTA negotiations, going on for the past year and a half, show that a number of anti-consumer provisions are being discussed, the groups said. They include:

  • Allowing internet service providers to cut customers off if sharing copyrighted files is alleged.
  • Limiting the interoperability of legally acquired digital content, such as music or movies.
  • Authorizing border guards to search and seize laptops and MP3 players if copyright infringing material is found on them.
  • Introducing criminal sanctions for copyright infringements.

The groups held a web conference on Tuesday to discuss the joint declaration and criticize ACTA governments for their continued secrecy.

'Cast light on them'

Jeremie Zimmerman, a spokesman for La Quadrature du Net, an internet rights advocacy in France, said the groups were adopting a "vampire strategy" in fighting ACTA.

"We have to cast light on them. As a vampire in sunlight, they will dissolve," he said.

The groups, which include Washington-based Public Knowledge, the Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, and Quebec's Union des consommateurs, are demanding the treaty document be opened up to public discussion in negotiating countries. 

In keeping discussions closed, governments are allowing the business world to limit technology by binding it with laws, when it should be the other way around, said Olivier Charbonneau, an associate librarian at Concordia University in Montreal.

"It's a question of what's possible and what's legal," he said. "Industry wants digital locks protected by laws."

The treaty has particular resonance in Canada, where the federal government recently concluded cross-country consultations with the public on an upcoming revision to national copyright laws. The consultations were done after the government twice tried to introduce copyright reform without talking to ordinary Canadians, which provoked online and real-world protests.

Industry Minister Tony Clement in December said that whatever domestic laws the government comes up with will trump ACTA provisions.

"The ACTA negotiations are in fact subservient to any legislation put forward in this House," he said during a parliamentary session in December.

ACTA critics don't buy the government's position, however. University of Ottawa Prof. Michael Geist, who runs a veritable ACTA encyclopedia on his blog, said Canada will face extraordinary pressure from other treaty countries to adopt the agreement once it is concluded at the end of this year.

NDP wants government to disclose role

Geist and other critics have also taken issue with member governments' reasons for the secrecy around the talks. Canada and other countries have said that ACTA doesn't have to be discussed openly because it is a trade agreement, but critics say it is anything but.

"To call it an anti-counterfeiting treaty is to sell it short. There would be broad support for that sort of treaty. This is a copyright treaty," Geist said. "It's astonishing to see this take place outside the norm of where copyright treaties are typically discussed. It's misleading."

NDP MP Charlie Angus on Tuesday wrote a letter to Canada's new minister of international trade, Peter Van Loan, urging him to respect the copyright consultations and come clean on the government's role in ACTA discussions.

"The secrecy surrounding this treaty is a complete reversal of the commitments your government has made to ensure public input and consultation on changes to Canadian copyright law," he wrote. "This secrecy undermines the credibility of the ministers of Industry and Heritage who have both made some effort to engage the public prior to the development of a new copyright framework for Canada."

The Canadian groups involved in the joint declaration urged Canadians to educate themselves about ACTA and voice their concerns to their MPs.