Brussels denies rumours of secret anti-piracy treaty

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An upcoming global trade agreement on copyright and counterfeiting, known as ACTA, will not rewrite EU rules on the liability of internet service providers, a leading European Commission official told EURACTIV, denying media reports that suggest otherwise.

The leading Commission official said media reports were oversimplifying the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which wrapped up one stage of a series of negotiations in Mexico last week.

The official declined to be named due to a non-disclosure agreement.

The European Commission has been privy to secretive international trade talks on counterfeiting, which have been ongoing for two years.

Policymakers have protested against the secretive nature of the talks and allege that trade envoys are seeking to bypass the political process and introduce unpopular policies.

A cross-party group of MEPs will send a letter to the Commission today (4 February) demanding minutes and documents from the negotiations.

MEPs claim they are due "immediate and full information" on international trade agreements under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty.

A Commission official told EURACTIV that the EU executive's trade office had been providing information to MEPs on ACTA "wherever possible".

Conservative MEP Syed Kamall (UK) confirmed that the Commission had informed the Parliament of the talks' progress. But he said Commission officials cannot say much, as they are bound by a non-disclosure agreement.

Parliament unlikely to veto ACTA

The Parliament will not be able to influence policies emerging from ACTA, but they will have the chance to veto the agreement if it is unsatisfactory, according to policymakers in both the EU executive and the legislature.

However, both MEPs and Commission officials say it is unlikely that the Parliament will reject ACTA.

"The European Parliament will be asked to give assent to ACTA," Martin Koehler, advisor on international trade for the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, told EURACTIV, saying that a parliamentary 'no' would unravel the agreement and send the Commission back to the drawing board.

But Koehler added that the Parliament will be expected to endorse ACTA as it would be a sign of mistrust in the European Commission if it did not.

"It is crystal clear that ACTA will go through," Koehler said.

ACTA has Brussels in a stir

The Spanish EU Presidency is making a concerted effort to wrap up the talks by mid-2010, but the Commission official said this was highly unlikely.

The pluri-lateral negotiations are purely intended to clinch an agreement on intellectual property enforcement, the official said.

However, this is exactly what lobbyists and MEPs in Brussels are worried about.

A leaked Commission paper on ACTA in October allegedly showed that negotiators at the global talks were attempting to rewrite current EU rules on the liability of internet service providers (ISPs) for pirated content on their networks.

The official denied those allegations and added that under the EU's eCommerce laws, ISPs can already be held liable for content on their network if they do not meet certain requirements.

For example, if an ISP is defined as a "mere conduit," a carrier of content, then it is not responsible for pirated content if it does not "initiate or modify" it and has no say on where it ends up, the official explained.

La Quadrature du Net, a web pressure group, maintains that ACTA will create legal uncertainty for ISPs, which  will start to self-censor what happens on their networks and "bend under the pressure of the entertainment industries".

The Brussels trade body for telecommunications companies, ETNO, is concerned that the agreement will infringe internet users' rights by allowing content filtering or disconnecting users without a due process, a draft policy that was already rejected by MEPs.

"ETNO is concerned that disproportionate and wide-ranging measures such as filtering or the possibility of disconnecting internet users could be introduced through the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement currently negotiated by the EU and the US among others. Such a move would fully contradict users' rights as currently enshrined in EU law and reinforced by the recently adopted EU Telecoms Package," says Michael Bartholomew, director of EU telecomms federation ETNO.

"By creating legal uncertainty for the internet operators, ACTA will force them to bend under the pressure of entertainment industries. ACTA will compel internet service providers to filter and remove content and services, turning them into private police and justice auxiliaries. We cannot tolerate that restrictions to fundamental rights and freedoms be imposed by private actors. Such a modification of criminal law by governments themselves, in total opacity, shows how much the people behind ACTA hate democracy," according to Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson for citizens' advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which began in Geneva two years ago, is a plurilateral trade agreement to establish international standards on intellectual property rights.

According to former trade negotiators, countries attempted to clinch an agreement under the banner of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), but as members could not agree, like-minded nations formed ACTA.

Participants in the last round of talks in Mexico included Australia, Canada, the European Union (represented by the European Commission), Spain in its capacity as EU presidency holder, an unnamed EU member state, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.

The next talks are scheduled to take place in April, in Wellington, New Zealand.

  • March 2010: MEPs debate ACTA negotiations.
  • April 2010: ACTA negotiations reconvene in Wellington, New Zealand.

 

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