Tens of thousands of people took part in anti-ACTA rallies on Saturday (11 February), saying the accord intended to crack down on illegal commerce will curb internet freedom.
A spokesman for the Internet freedom group Quadrature du Net said the anti-ACTA protests were a “demonstration without precedent” because they are taking across Europe at the same time.
More than 25,000 demonstrators braved freezing temperatures in German cities to march against the draft international trade pact while 4,000 Bulgarians in Sofia rallied against the agreement designed to strengthen the legal framework for intellectual property rights, Reuters reported. There were thousands more – mostly young – demonstrators at other high-spirited rallies despite snow and freezing temperatures in cities including Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, Bucharest, Vilnius, Paris, Brussels and Dublin.
Strong opposition in Central and Eastern Europe
Opposition to ACTA in Eastern Europe is especially strong and spreading rapidly. Protestors have compared it to the Big Brother-style surveillance used by communist regimes. Downloading films and music is also a popular way for many young Eastern Europeans to get free entertainment. "Stop ACTA!" read a banner carried by one of the 2,000 marchers in central Berlin, where temperatures were minus-10 Celsius. "It's not acceptable to sacrifice the rights of freedom for copyrights," Thomas Pfeiffer, a Green party leader in Munich, told Focus magazine's online edition. Some 16,000 people demonstrated against ACTA in the southern German city on Saturday. Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States signed the agreement in October aiming to cut copyright and trademark theft. On 26 January, the European Commission and 22 EU countries signed the deal. (See background.)
Germany's Foreign Ministry said on Friday it would hold off on signing, and Cyprus, Estonia, the Netherlands and Slovakia also have not signed the accord. Poland, which has been a vocal critic, has not yet ratified the agreement in Parliament.Protestors are concerned that free downloading of movies and music might lead to prison sentences if the ACTA were ratified. They also fear that exchanging material on the internet may become a crime and say the accord will allow for massive online surveillance.
In the meantime, the European Commission published a document intended to fend off fears about ACTA. In the form of questions and answers, the EU executive explains that ACTA will not monitor the internet, that it does not change EU law and that it does not give preference to industry over fundamental rights.
It also explains that ACTA do not prevent people form sharing content online and that it has not been negotiated in secret.
"ACTA is not about checking private laptops or smart phones at borders," the Commission writes in an attempt to counter widespread fears that a person can be arrested while crossing the border because of unlicensed software or of illegal downloads. "ACTA is really not about individual citizens," the document states.
The Commission also insists that the European Parliament has been regularly consulted over the ACTA negotiations, noting 13 consultations, including three plenary debates with EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, were held between 2007 and 2010. The Commission also says 17 reports and notes on ACTA negotiations and seven draft negotiating texts were shared with MEPs.
ACTA 'good for Europe', business says
Simultaneously, forty mostly European business federation published a letter addressed to MEPs stressing "the strengths of ACTA and how it can benefit Europe". The organisations include AIM, the European Brands Asoociation, the British Phonographic Industry BPI, the European Association of Communications Agencies EACA, the Federation of European Publishers FEP-FEE, the International Trademark Association INTA, IFPI, representing the recording industry worldwide, the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue TABD and others.
"ACTA is good for Europe," state the signatories of the letter, who say they represent thousands of European companies of all sizes and millions of workers in dozens of sectors crucial to the economy. They say they are eager to get Europe out of the current economic crisis by promoting innovation and growth-enhancing measures.
The INTA letter urges MEPs "to focus on the facts and not the misinformation and to support ACTA".
A vote on ACTA is expected in June and observers say MEPs are likely to reject the agreement.
The Party of European Socialists has already taken position against ACTA, and the Socialists and Democrats group stated that they doubt that ACTA is the "right treaty" to address the need to combat counterfeited goods.
If ACTA is rejected, a new agreement needs to be negotiated in a transparent way, MEPs say.