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Amid Protests and a Court Case, ACTA Set to Come Before EU Parliament

BY Antonella Napolitano | Friday, February 24 2012

Anti-ACTA sign in Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Frikjan / Flickr

Next week the European Parliament will start discussing the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, a controversial treaty that would set new international standards for dealing with copyright infringements.

So far, ACTA has raised many concerns among European citizens who have voiced their concerns online and in the streets. A global day of protest on Feb. 11 has already garnered headlines, and a second massive demonstration has been planned for this Saturday. This is another stage of a growing grassroots movement started about a month ago, when the treaty was signed by 22 out of 27 EU member states.

Next June, the European Parliament will have to vote to ratify or reject the treaty, but what seemed to be little more than a technicality now represents a crucial moment in a public debate on Internet freedom and digital rights.

The grassroots movement
Earlier this week, the French organization La Quadrature du Net launched a call to action, asking people to voice their concerns to their MEPs, in a week where they have scheduled meetings with constituency in their home countries. This was just the latest initiative of the NGO, one of the main hubs of the movement.

Other important freedom of speech organizations involved include European Digital Rights (@EDRi_org), the Open Rights Group (@OpenRightsGroup), Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (@FFII) and the U.S.-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

While there have been coordinated talks between civil society organizations, the movement is decentralized. In an email interview, EFF’s Maira Sutton commented on what is the role that NGOs should play in the process: “Civil society groups need to keep the public steadily informed on what is going on and what they can do to take actions against these agreements. As seen from the blackout protests [...], people have the power to impact the laws that govern them, but it is up to us to help them figure out how to do it.”

Another ongoing initiative is Avaaz’s global petition to ask members of the European Parliament to reject the treaty. The petition was launched on Jan. 25 and currently has more than 2,410,000 signatures.

The European Union response

On March 1st the International Trade Committee of European Parliament (INTA), the main committee involved in the treaty, will hold a public workshop open to academics and civil society organizations.

The workshop is scheduled to happen although the European Commission, the EU's executive body, on Wednesday referred the treaty to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). For more on that, read Miranda Neubauer's post on the subject.

The move was not liked by opponents of ACTA, who considered it as an attempt to delay the debate.

The court's ruling may not be good for ACTA: last week, in a ruling on a 2009 lawsuit, the Court ruled that a social network “cannot be obliged to install a general filtering system, covering all its users, in order to prevent the unlawful use of musical and audio-visual work." The decision confirmed a previous ruling on a similar case.

This may be the first time that so many people in Europe have mobilized in response to action by European Union institutions. For weeks, activists have been calling for their elected officials in the Parliament to take action to shape policies.

In an email interview, MEP Marielle Gallo, a supporter of the treaty, wrote:

What is also at stake right now is the legitimacy of the European institutions and the current EU treaty providing for a specific procedure to follow when it comes to the negotiation and conclusion of international agreements. This is a far more important issue than any specific trade agreement and, therefore, we should debate on these issues at both the EU and national levels.

Even though, technically, MEPs can only approve the treaty or reject it, the decision has definitely turned political. While it may represent a crucial step for future debates on global issues, ACTA is also a case study in the actual role of the European institutions with respect to national parliaments and governments, a delicate political balance pursued by all the actors involved.

Committees will exchange views and prepare reports that will be shared with the European Parliament until the final vote, set on June 11th.