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How Activists Coordinated European Opposition to ACTA

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, June 20 2012

ACTA protest in Berlin on June 9 (Flickr/Digitale Gesellschaft)

In February and March, protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) captured the world's attention with a turnout of thousands across Europe, particularly in Germany, Bulgaria and other central and Eastern European countries.

Since then, opposition to the treaty within the European parliament and many European countries seems to have solidified. Neelie Kroes, European commissioner for telecoms and technology, has said the treaty likely won't pass in Europe, and several European Parliament Committees have rejected the treaty. Tomorrow morning, one last European Parliament Committee, the International Trade Committee, will vote on the treaty. The European Parliament as a whole plans to vote on the treaty in the first week of July, and its members are expected to base their votes on the recommendations of the committee votes.

Ahead of that vote, 41 advocacy organizations have released a statement calling on members of the committee to reject the treaty, and criticizing proposals to delay the vote. The groups oppose the treaty not only because they say its copyright implications are overly broad, but also because they say the treaty was mainly negotiated behind closed doors. On Twitter, Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake writes that she expects the vote to be "almost 50-50." Her party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, is also criticizing a reported proposal by the conservative European People's Party for the vote to be secret.

The current momentum of opposition surrounding ACTA is the culmination of a monthlong effort by advocacy groups across Europe, particularly in Germany, to use video and social media to keep the issue in the public consciousness, just under the radar, and to turn out protesters for one final day of action on June 9th.

That Saturday, according to German press reports, there were about 1,500 demonstrators in about 40 towns in Germany. Other press reports indicate several hundred in Paris and Brussels.

Organizer Markus Beckedahl, a German Internet policy activist who is chair of the advocacy group Digitale Gesellschaft (Digital Society), acknowledged in an e-mail that that was a significantly lower turnout than in February. But he said there had been much less press coverage of the protests ahead of time, and noted that much of the media coverage and many politicians had declared the end of the treaty. "In this respect the threat potential is gone for many, even though nothing has been decided yet," he wrote. "But still a few thousand people went on the street for an Internet-topic in nice weather during the Euro 2012 soccer championship -- also not exactly a small number."

In an English-language post published today, "How-To build an Anti-ACTA-Campaign," Beckedahl recounts the group's strategy and reflects on the past few months of activism. "Our main goal has been to create a broad coalition of organisations and people protesting against ACTA for different arguments, to communicate the criticism against ACTA in a comprehensive way as well as to connect protests taking place online and offline. We have tried hard to keep the protests alive and thriving from February until June with a small team of people working on a voluntary base," he writes. "Prior to the upcoming vote on ACTA in the European parliament, we have reviewed the pasts months activities and have derived the lessons learned . How do you organise a broad campaign for digital citizen rights with little budget but a lot of motivation, help and fun?"

In early April, a video calling for the June 9 protest surfaced on Youtube. True to the spirit of ACTA opponents, the video has been "created with material found on the Internet, without any commercial interest," as it states itself. "Remixing is part of our culture -- This part of our culture is banned by our copyright laws. So don't watch this video..." Interspersed with footage from the earlier protests and European political institutions is a video recording of the famous 5th grade chorus from P.S. 22 on Staten Island, which itself became popular through YouTube videos of its performances, singing the Oasis song Whatever, with the opening lines "'I'm free to be whatever I, Whatever I choose And I'll sing the blues if I want." The final message in the video is "Join us on the Streets. Against ACTA. For a new copyright agenda. For digital civil rights, freedom of speech and free Internet. For Europe. For the world."

According to Beckedahl, the video was edited and subtitled by several people in Berlin. Through the European Digital Rights Initiative, those people reached out to activists in other countries, who translated the text into Engilsh, after which it was collaboratively translated into other languages using Etherpad. According to a wiki by protest organizers, it has been translated into 12 languages.

In the period after the February demonstrations, Beckedahl said there was probably less ACTA activism than appearances sometimes suggested given the size of protests. But, he added, Anonymous activists had gathered in several towns to organize so-called "Paperstorms" to distribute flyers against ACTA or organized other events. "But after the two demonstration days in February, it has gotten quieter," he wrote ahead of June 9.

However, in the past weeks, he said, the organization had crowdfunded 15,000 Euros to produce and print informational and mobilization flyers, barrier tape and labels to distribute to 200 people in 180 cities. "The idea behind that was to produce well-founded and designed material and distribute it as largely around Germany as possible, and support local actions and demonstrations by making the infrastructure available." The group wrote in a blog post that it had distributed almost all of its 120,000 pieces of material.

Beckedahl also explained how the long lead-up time to the protests evolved. "After the protests on February 11th were unexpectedly large, we faced the challenge of planning a strategy until the vote in the Summer," he wrote. "While many politically inexperienced people wanted to go back on the streets immediately, we wanted to, in the context of a European Day of Action, coordinate the protests before the votes and helped choose June 9th."

He also gave a sense of how the European coordination works, calling EDRi.org a "central node" for organizers, in addition to La Quadrature du Net from France. "From EDRI came brochures with well-founded criticism of ACTA, which we for example translated into German," he said. "In exchange we made the mobilization video, which was in turn distributed through EDRI and translated into [at first] eight languages."

In addition, Digital Gesellschaft set up a platform on its website to encourage supporters to contact EU Members of Parliament directly, including sample messages. "We hear from many EU Members of Parliament that they are in part drowning in e-mails related to ACTA. For that reason we are encouraging contact over telephone, mail or fax."

On Twitter, Schaake writes, "Meanwhile, hundreds if not thousands of emails asking MEPs to vote against ?#ACTA? came in over the past week. None asking to vote in favor."

Prior to the demonstrations, Beckedahl said he was not expecting as large a turnout as the earlier protests, "with the surprising success of the February demonstrations with around 100,000 people on the street." Still, the June 9th weekend's demonstrations were important, "to signal to the [political establishment] that there is still an active civil society," he said. His group is cautiously optimistic that there will be a majority against ACTA in July. "But we are also aware that this majority is not yet secure and we will fight until the end and mobilize people to become active themselves and advocate for a free Internet."

The issue may also be somewhat reducing the disconnect often seen between European citizens and the European government. A 2011 European Parliament survey about the awareness of the European Parliament in Germany did not address Internet policy. It had found an increase from 28 percent in November 2010 to 33 percent in November 2011 in respondents' feeling that they were well-informed about the European Parliament's activities.

"The more attention arises through direct citizen communication, the more relevant the issue is for Members of Parliament," Beckedahl noted. "That relevance leads to a more intensive [occupation with the issue] and in the case of ACTA, a confrontation with the criticism. And in this case it led to more and more politicians and parliamentary groups clearly speaking out against ACTA. Before February we wouldn't have believed in that."

In spite of the Europe-wide coordination, the protests, which were mapped worldwide on Google, are very much organized decentrally, he said. In Berlin, for example, the Left Party, the Greens, Pirates and the Chaos Computer Club coordinated with Digitale Gesellschaft, while other protests have a connection to Anonymous. In Austria, ahead of the protests, on June 4, activists organized a 50-minute long press conference in Vienna on ACTA that has since been posted to YouTube featuring local politicians, an organizer from EDRI and Austrian Members of the EU Parliament. That press conference also included a representative from Doctors Without Borders to discuss the treaty's effect on generic drugs. A protest map indicates that there were also protests planned in Australia and Japan.

Beckedahl said he did not necessarily see a connection between the electoral success of the Pirate Party Germany in the past few months and the ongoing conversation and protest preparation.

On the other hand, another protest organizer behind a popular German Stopp Acta Twitterfeed, Kine Haasler, the appointee for Internet communication for the Pirate Party of Lower Saxony, said she believed that the ACTA protests had contributed to the electoral success of the Pirate Party in German state-wide elections. Ahead of the June 9th protest, she wrote that activists had been regularly updating about the status of European Parliament votes on Twitter and Facebook to keep ACTA in public view. "While for the demonstrations on February 11 we still had to send many, many tweets, and with this approach managed to have an account blocked as spam on Twitter, we now know who we should directly target and tweet to, to spread the information Europe-wide," she wrote. "The social networks are a very important, powerful tool, without which such a wave would not have been possible." She has also been working to keep the protest-wiki up-to-date.

She wrote that even though it looks like there is a pretty good chance that ACTA is overturned, surprises are always possible given the influence of lobbyists, which can't be underestimated. She also wrote that there is fear that something similar to ACTA could come on the European Parliament's table again under a different name.

"To be absolutely certain that we now have done everything that is possible for us against ACTA, it is also important that we once more illustrate our position offline," she wrote. "For the demonstrations we are advertising with the slogan "'We are the Internet. We can also do offline.'"

In the town of Bielefeld, a university town of about 320,000 in North Rhine-Westphalia, there were protests on both days in February with about 1,500 and 700 participants according to local reports. Those organizers decided not to organize a local protest on June 9. Jörn Fluck, an organizer for the Bielefeld initiative, wrote that that decision was based on a projected small number of participants and the idea that fewer large demonstrations are more effective than many small ones, and so organizers were encouraging participation in larger demonstrations in neighboring cities.

"In general the protests in February were considered successful and it is assumed that ACTA won't come into force," he wrote, adding that this sense contributed to comparatively less of a willingness to demonstrate.

"In our impression, interest in ACTA almost exploded after the demonstrations in February," he wrote. Locally, he noted that there had been particular interest among students in schools. Many schools in the region discussed the topic in their classes, he said, with students giving in-class presentations or writing term papers on the issue, and there were requests from students to organizers to give talks on ACTA in schools.

In the past week, a pro-ACTA website appeared online, which Glyn Moody critically analyzed for ComputerworldUK.

Ahead of the final votes in the European Union, Beckedahl wrote that his group was organizing an effort for all 99 German members of the European Parliament to receive a red jute bag with the message "ACTA is the cat in the sack," referring to a German idiom for buying something of no value, as in a pig in a poke. The bags will have a note explaining the group's objections, and a Digitale Gesellschaft member will deliver them to the offices in Brussels. "Our message is: Due to many vague formulations, ACTA can be interpreted in different ways and so is anything but legal certainty. And Parliament should not approve something so diffuse and unclear."

Campact, an German advocacy group, is also promoting and supporting Digitale Gesellschaft's efforts against ACTA. The group was created in 2005 based on the example of MoveOn, after the co-founder had spent a year at Cornell University from 2002 to 2003 working on his dissertation.

Over the weekend of June 9, German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who played a key role in halting Germany's signature on the treaty in February, said she would support passing a stripped down version of ACTA without the intellectual property measures. "When we see how many people there are in Europe who don't want ACTA, then it is right to absorb those protests and to say: We are for the present not going to pursue this further," she said in an interview with Der Spiegel. "We can't just act as if the concerns of people don't interest us. We might have done that in the past, and that has led to disinterest in politics." She also said that after the summer recess, the government planned to introduce legislation related to intellectual property that would for example make it easier to obtain e-mail addresses from illegal downloaders.

This post has been updated.

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