BRUSSELS, Belgium – Europe is facing a widening revolt over an international agreement billed by supporters as a essential tool to beat online piracy, but denounced by opponents as a menace to internet freedom.
“ACTA is an irrecoverable circumvention of democracy, a text whose need was never demonstrated in any way, and which creates grave dangers for online freedoms for the sole benefit of a few special interest groups,” said Philippe Aigrain, co-founder of the French Internet campaign group La Quadrature du Net.
ACTA – the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement – is designed to strengthen and standardize international standards for copyright protection. Governments backing it emphasize its potential for tackling the booming online trade in counterfeit drugs and designer goods.
Protesters however have seized on clauses they say will ban file-sharing and force Internet Service Providers to take the role of online police, threatening freedom on the web.
Opposition has been most intense in Eastern Europe, where protesters have likened the agreement to the Big Brother tactics of the region's one-time Communist regimes.
Mass rallies, with many protesters donning the Guy Fawkes masks popularized by hacker group Anonymous, have forced the Polish, Slovak and Czech governments to suspend ratification of the agreement. Cyber-attacks have also been launched against government websites, and organizers claim to have raised almost 2 million signatures on a petition against the agreement.
This weekend the protests are set to spread, with more than a 100 demonstrations planned in cities around Europe and in Canada, Australia and the United States in an anti-ACTA day of action.
ACTA was signed by in October last year by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States. Last month, the European Union and 22 of its 27 member states signed up.
Arguments against ACTA as an assault on web freedoms have been similar to those used to counter the SOPA and PIPA bills under consideration in the US Congress to regulate the internet. In addition, opponents complain that negotiations were carried out in secret and were heavily influenced by the big business while excluding groups representing internet users.
Kader Arif, a French Socialist lawmaker tasked with preparing a report on ACTA for the European Parliament, resigned last month complaining that the political right was seeking to railroad the agreement through the assembly for the benefit of corporate interests, without allowing a proper debate.
The agreement however is not yet a done deal in Europe. European Commission trade spokesman John Clancy told reporters Wednesday that ACTA will need to be ratified by the parliaments of all 27 EU members and by the European Parliament before it is “activated as a trade agreement” by the EU.