Now that the armchair activists are doing victory laps, celebrating the (temporary) death of anti-piracy laws SOPA and PIPA in Congress, the years-long protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is getting nasty. Led by Poland, who currently holds the European Union Presidency, several European nations became the latest to sign the secretive treaty in a ceremony that took place in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday. The United States signed it last year. This happened despite tens of thousands of civil rights advocates' -- many of them wearing Guy Fawkes masks or marching with their mouths taped -- storming the streets in front of the European Parliament office in Warsaw and Anonymous-types turning their direct denial of service (DDoS) attacks towards Polish government websites. These are surely some of the same free culture folks who brought down U.S. government sites to show the effects of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP (PIPA). But now that Europe has ratified ACTA a lot of the same provisions in those bills could start happening on a global scale.
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ACTA is hardly a new measure -- it's been bouncing around since 2006, when Japan and the U.S. first introduced the plurilateral agreement. It's also a very complex agreement that targets online copyright pirates as well as counterfeiters. Regardless, the European protests coupled with the residual anti-SOPA rage mean that the measure is gaining fresh exposure in the States. Even though Barack Obama signed an executive agreement last year essentially approving ACTA measures in the US, a recently submitted White House petition demands that ACTA go before the Senate and outspoken PIPA proponent Senator Ron Wyden has sent Obama a letter asking why he cut Congress out of the ACTA approval process. According to the law, the Senate must approve international treaties.
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Before we get ahead of ourselves too much, you're probably wondering: What the heck is ACTA anyways? And why is it so horrible?
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Well, there are plenty of websites set up to explain the bill, not to mention plenty of explainers. The best we've read comes from the folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco who've been waving a banner of protest against the agreement since it first appeared nearly six years ago. Their explainer is worth reading in full, but the section on why you should care about ACTA is worth quoting. It's less about the measures proposed in ACTA, than it is about the secretive way the agreement was developed. Noting how "ACTA has several features that raise significant potential concerns for consumers’ privacy and civil liberties for innovation and the free flow of information on the Internet" the EFF argues that "both civil society and developing countries are intentionally being excluded from these negotiations." So if you're still surprised that you've never heard of ACTA -- even in the anti-SOPA pile-on protest that blacked out some of the world's biggest websites last week -- this is likely why.
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The anti-ACTA protest, we'd imagine, is just getting started in this country. As legal experts start to parse through the lessons learned from the massive mobilization against SOPA and PIPA, free culture advocates can only hope that the debate that's been happening behind closed doors for years will stay in public view. Harvard law professor and free culture sage Yochai Benkler is one of these experts. On Wednesday, he published a guest post on Personal Democracy Media's blog TechPresident, "Seven Lessons from SOPA/PIPA/Megaupload and Four Proposals on Where We Go From Here." The main thread of his argument is that this debate will never be the same:
The starting point for negotiation cannot be that everything the industry got while networked citizenry was weak and dispersed is sacrosanct, and the only things on the negotiating table are Hollywood's shiny new regulatory toys. The politics have changed. Everything should be up for renegotiation, or we should use the blocking power of the network in conjunction with the veto-rich environment that is the American legislative system to prevent any additional creep from today's baseline.
So if the most troubling element of ACTA is that it was largely developed behind closed doors, those doors are starting to swing open. Or rather the Internet is charging through them, and we're sure that white-haired world leaders will have a hard time blocking them.
Democracy is no longer something that happens at a ballot box, once a year. It's a kinetic being, capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of citizens behind a cause and forcing decision-makers to rethink things. That's one of those great things about the open Internet.