Online activists across Europe are protesting against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which officially aims to protect intellectual rights but which critics say violates privacy. An online petition against the international treaty attracted more than a million signatures, EurActiv's network in Central Europe reports.
Perhaps the most spectacular protest action will take place in Poland, where Palikot, a political party, said it would put a Guy Fawkes mask on the country's 33-meter statue of Jesus Christ in western Świebodzin to protest against ACTA.
Guy Fawkes was a 16th-century English Catholic famous for having planned the Gunpowder Plot, an unsuccessful assassination attempt against King James. His mask, stylised in modern times, has become the symbol of protests groups, among which the 'Occupy' movement and the 'Anonymous' global hacker group.
The liberal Polish Palikot's Movement already put the Guy Fawkes mask on a statue of former US President Ronald Reagan in Warsaw on Sunday. Its leader Janusz Palikot said he would afix the mask on other statues throughout Poland, including those of pianist Frederic Chopin and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
Members of the Palikot party already appeared with the Guy Fawkes mask in Parliament after Poland signed with 21 other EU countries the controversial ACTA agreement (see background). Critics say it will lead to intrusive surveillance and censorship.
After persistent protests, which grew stronger after Prime Minister Donald Tusk dismissed a call of the opposition for a referendum on ACTA, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski asked the country's ombudsman to clarify whether the agreement restricted civil rights.
In the Czech Republic, hackers have attacked various websites in protest against ACTA in the past few days, including those of the government and of the Czech Association of copyright protection. On the same day, Anonymous sent a threatening letter to the Czech Parliament.
However, a plan by Anonymous and the Czech Pirate Party to organise demonstrations against ACTA throughout the whole country failed because of bad organisation. Only a few dozens of people gathered in Prague, while in many other cities the planned protests did not take place at all. The public discussion was thus limited mostly to Facebook and other social media.
ACTA was strongly criticised by Czech MEP Zuzana Roithová (EPP), who said lawmakers should have focused on sanctions against piracy on the commercial scale, "not on the bullying of citizens".
Another Czech MEP, Pavel Poc (S&D), said he would "definitely not back the approval of ACTA by the Parliament". MEP Jan Březina (EPP) said there were many rumours around the treaty brought by the media and that it would be fair to bring clear and true information, for example about the issue of intrusive controls on software and hard disc memory while crossing borders.
Sitting on the fence
Slovakia, as one of the five countries that has not yet signed ACTA, still awaits an official statement from the Ministry of Economy. However, the party holding the ministry, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), issued a statement saying that neither the party nor the ministry led by its nominee Juraj Miškov would support anything that could lead to limitation of individual freedoms.
"We have serious concerns that ACTA constraints basic human rights like the freedom of individual or the right to privacy. In case these concerns are confirmed, the SaS party will not support the approval of this agreement by the government neither the ratification in the parliament," SaS stated.
Despite the statement, on 27 January Anonymous hacked the webpage of the Slovak government.
Germany too has yet to sign ACTA, but it was announced that the country would do so as soon as possible. The federal government approved ACTA on 30 November 2011 and plans to finalise the ratification procedure this year, Spiegel Online reported.
Nevertheless, German internet activists have started to mobilise against ACTA. The Pirate Party, a political movement dedicated to Internet freedom, is using Twitter to organise 'Stop ACTA' demonstrations in several German cities on 11 February.
In Romania, a country rocked by anti-government protests for three weeks, the government appeared to regret the fact that it had given instructions to its ambassador in Tokyo to sign the ACTA treaty.
Victor Ponta, leader of the biggest opposition party PSD, asked the government of Prime Minister Emil Boc to publicly explain why it had signed ACTA on behalf of Romania without a prior public debate.
Ponta wrote on Facebook that if it took power, the opposition coalition USL would suspend the enforcement of the ACTA until a dialogue with civil society takes place.
The Anonymous hackers addressed messages to Romanians, warning that ACTA would limit the freedom of expression and would be a first step towards "dictatorship on the internet".
In Bulgaria too, the opposition, both from centre-left and centre-right, took firm positions against ACTA, while a wave of protests against the deal grew across social media. Faced with the situation, Economy Minister Traicho Traykov said that his country had signed the treaty with "disappearing ink". He admitted that the country had instructed its ambassador to sign the deal, but was quick to add that without ratification by Parliament "it's like there is no signature".
"I commit that there will be debates, roundtables on the issue," Traykov said.
Petition reaches 1.4 million signatures
In the meantime, it was announced that an online petition, launched on Avaz.org website, has reached more than 1.4 million signatures. The petition appeared on 25 January, a day before the 22 EU countries signed ACTA in Tokyo.
The petition, which will be delivered to legislators in Brussels, reiterated protestors' claims that ACTA would grant corporations and governments the ability to censor the internet.
Asked by EurActiv for the latest update on the situation, the European Commission said on 1 February that after 22 member states signed in Tokyo a week earlier, and the EU executive had indications that remaining five countries were going to sign, but still had to complete internal decision-making procedures.
The next steps are more debate in the coming weeks and months, and then a plenary vote in the European Parliament sometimes in June, a spokesperson said.
ACTA has never been a secret process, it has been known since December 2007 that an agreement was sought, the spokesperson insisted. He explained that the EU has pushed through the process so that NGOs, academics, interested parties would debrief society on the negotiations.
ACTA needs both the national ratification and the European Parliament's consent. At the EU level, the debate moves to parliament. If stakeholders think that they haven't had a direct voice, their chance to have a say is through that parliamentary debate, the spokesperson said.
The European Parliament’s rapporteur for ACTA - French MEP Kader Arif (S&D) - resigned in protest after the 22 members signed ACTA on 26 January.
He said he had witnessed "never-before-seen manoeuvres" by officials preparing the treaty.
"I condemn the whole process which led to the signature of this agreement: no consultation of the civil society, lack of transparency since the beginning of negotiations, repeated delays of the signature of the text without any explanation given, rejection of Parliament's recommendations as given in several resolutions of our assembly," Arif said.
In a recent exclusive interview with the Guardian, Arif said that despite talks over the agreement having begun in 2007, "the European parliament, which represents the rights of the people, had no access to this mandate, neither had it information of the position defended by the commission or the demands of the other parties to the agreement".
Arif said that ACTA threatens online freedom, access to the use of generic versions of drugs for treating illnesses, and could potentially mean that someone crossing a border who has a single song or film on their computer could face criminal charges.
Helmut Scholz, a German MEP and member of the leftist GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament said "I can understand the fear of a lot of users of the internet that this international trade agreement is limiting their free access to the internet, which is a basic, fundamental right of each citizen on the Earth".
"The European Parliament will probably in March have the vote on the already-concluded agreement. So we only have the chance to vote 'Yes' or 'No'. My group will say no," he added.
Arturo di Corinto, researcher at La Sapienza University in Italy and a contributor to La Repubblica, told EurActiv Italy that ACTA can become a deterrent and a tool for self-censorship against those who believe in freedom of culture, research, cooperation and communication.
In fact, ACTA gives the opportunity to those holding intellectual property rights to intervene directly on third parties violating these rights without going through the courts, thus forcing internet providers and associations to cooperate, Di Corinto said.
The Italian researcher said further: "The anti-counterfeiting agreement does more harm than the harm it is supposed to repair. It is actually an agreement sought by the music, film and TV industry, and the pharmaceutical business. The fact that this agreement should apply to third countries that have ratified it can lead to enforcement problems and can hamper competitiveness. ACTA will allow powerful forces to act without transparency by also putting their own interest ahead of people’s freedom, failing to respect constitutional criteria, such us the simple possibility to report a crime to the judicial authorities. The ACTA debate dates back to 2007 and a broad coalition has been fighting against the agreement for five years now. The worldwide protests, online and offline, reveal that many citizens do not accept ACTA. "
Ivan Dikov writes in an op-ed with the Bulgarian news website Novinite that Bulgaria is a country much poorer than the remaining ACTA signatories and could not in fact assume the same responsibilities.
Torrent sites such as Zamunda and Arena are the most popular websites in Bulgaria. The reason for that is not just the enormous amount of music, films, software, and books that they make available to anybody for free. The sites are not accessible from outside the country.
These torrent sites are technically in violation of all sorts of copyright laws but what they offer has no alternative for the people in Bulgaria for the time being given the country's social and economic development, Dikov argues.