The European Parliament defied the EU executive today (10 March), casting a vote against an agreement between the EU, the US and other major powers on combating online piracy and threatening to take legal action at the European Court of Justice.
An overwhelming majority of MEPs (663 in favour and 13 against) today voted a resolution criticising the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), arguing that it flouts agreed EU laws on piracy online.
The Parliament's resolution states that MEPs will go to the EU Court of Justice if the European Commission, which is leading the negotiation on behalf of the European Union, does not reject ACTA rules that would allow cutting off users from the Internet if caught downloading copyrighted content.
Though MEPs cannot participate in the ACTA talks, the European Parliament's consent is necessary for the European Commission to conclude the treaty on behalf of the EU.
Dubbed the ACTA musketeers, four MEPs from across national and party lines - Alexander Alvaro (liberals), Stavros Lambrinidis (socialists), Zuzana Roithova (christian democrats) and Françoise Castex (socialists) - have launched a petition against the agreement, which has collected 31 signatures so far.
NGOs, academics and trade bodies that have studied leaks from the trade talks say the agreement would pave the way for network providers to introduce "US-style draconian" ways to penalise piracy.
Leaked ACTA drafts have shown that the agreement would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to introduce sanctions against Internet users, provided the consumer is informed of the penalties in the contract, argues La Quadrature du Net, an NGO campaigning for the rights and freedoms of citizens on the Internet.
EuroISPA, the Brussels trade body for network providers, says that recent leaks from the European Council indicate the EU is considering US proposals on combating piracy which include "criminal sanctions, US-style notice and take-down and monitoring of a user's Internet traffic and services".
Though EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht reassured MEPs at a debate yesterday that the EU was not considering all of the measures in the ACTA text, EuroISPA argues this contradicts the most recent leaks coming from the EU and the US.
"The Commission has provided no reassurance that it will not introduce the penalties outlined in the ACTA leaks," Andrea d'Inneco from EuroISPA told EurActiv.
Commission officials participating in the talks have signed a non-disclosure agreement and have been reluctant to divulge much information from the talks.
A high-ranking official told EurActiv that rumours saying ACTA would rewrite rules on the liability of Internet service providers for pirated content on their networks were untrue.
EU rules, which were agreed upon after lengthy negotiations last year, say that ISPs are mere conduits of information and are not liable for pirated content if they take measures to remove that content, the official explained.
The Commission official said this would still be the pretext of EU law and that ACTA would not alter the European safeguards.
French MEP Tokia Saïfi, who followed the ACTA resolution for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, backed calls for greater transparency in the negotiation. In an address to the European Commission, she said: "While respecting the confidentiality clauses linked to the accord, we wish today to be fully associated to the legislative process and have access to texts and summaries of negotiations".
"Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, we have new powers that we want to see respected," Saïfi added.
In a statement released today, MEPs Lambrinidis (S&D, Greece), Castex (S&D, France), Alvaro (ALDE, Germany) and Roithova (EPP, Czech Republic) "deeply regret the fact that the Council is continuing its secretive stance, despite the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates that the European Parliament should have full and immediate access to information at all stages of international negotiations".
"This Parliament will not sit back silently while the fundamental rights of millions of citizens are being negotiated away behind closed doors. We oppose any "legislation laundering" on an international level of what would be very difficult to get through most national legislatures or the European Parliament," added Lambrinidis.
The Greens group in the European Parliament said the Commission's failure to provide negotiations documents to the EU Assembly was "a violation of the Lisbon Treaty".
"The EU cannot continue to negotiate on ACTA if the people are not allowed to take part in the process," said Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter, who co-authored the Parliament resolution. "It is also a totally absurd and unacceptable situation if MEPs, behind closed doors, have to ask the Commission about the content of the agreements we are supposed to vote on."
Christian Engström, a Green MEP from the Swedish Pirate Party, added that Parliament "will not accept to be treated like a doormat". "We now demand access to all the documents so that we can start to discuss the content of ACTA. We will fight for personal integrity, freedom of the Internet and for a free and open society. If the Commission and the Council refuse to comply with today's resolution, we have clearly signalled that we are ready to go to Court of Justice of the European Union and ultimately veto the whole agreement if necessary."
"Building on this milestone towards democratic transparency, citizens must urge MEPs to sign the written declaration in order to oppose measures in ACTA that endanger the open nature of the Internet," said Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson for citizens' advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.