Geek Guide: Internet freedom, now!

ACTA, like its predecessors SOPA and PIPA, has sparked massive dissent in the developed world.

Noman Ansari March 15, 2012

Another multinational treaty to control internet activity has gone down the drain. The controversial treaty, which critics argued deprives internet users of basic rights to freedom of expression and privacy, had seen active protests in over 20 European countries not a week before.

Huge strikes were carried out on February 11, called the ‘Anti-ACTA’ day. Organisers claimed that in Germany alone, over 100,000 people had gathered, where the treaty had only been postponed a day earlier by the Justice Ministry. Not only that, but outraged citizens of other European countries such as Estonia, Malta, Bulgaria, Britain, and France also took part in the demonstrations, with many symbolically sporting masks of the fictional freedom fighting character ‘V’, from the graphic novel, V for Vendetta.

The protests were greater in ferocity to the ones that had taken place against SOPA and PIPA, anti-piracy bills introduced in the US Congress, which were stopped dead in their tracks earlier in the year. ACTA, which has more detailed language than SOPA, was an even greater threat to internet freedom, according to critics. It has been partially signed by many developed nations, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, Singapore, South Korea, United States, as well as most countries in Europe.

The treaty, which had been under secret development since 2006, only captured public attention by chance, thanks to the publication of a secret discussion paper on whistleblowing website Wikileaks. Critics immediately noted that the agreement not only threatened freedom on the internet, but undermined access to basic things like food and medicine for even those countries that weren’t on board. This of course infuriated powerful developing nations such as India, China, and Brazil.

According to the newspaper  Times of India, an anonymous Indian official vowed organized government action, “We will hold talks with like-minded countries and may oppose the ACTA proposal jointly, as well as individually, by holding talks with countries involved.”

What also bothered opponents was that aside from sidestepping developing nations, the treaty also failed to take input from non-governmental organizations and civil rights groups. Peter Bradwell, a campaigner at ‘Open Rights Group’ and the writer of ‘Private Lives’, called ACTA an “unacceptable insult to democracy” while giving an interview to Russian news website “You are creating a system that can be abused and where mistakes can happen. That’s why it’s such a dangerous agreement,” he said.

However, the final battleground for ACTA was Europe. After the bill had already been signed by countries like the US, it still required ratification in the EU parliament in order to take effect. After 22 of the 27 European Member States signed the bill, appointed chief investigator, EU official rapporteur Kader Arif, resigned in protest, saying, “I want to send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation. I will not take part in this masquerade.”

Poland, where over 20,000 had protested against the agreement a week before Arif’s resignation, was one of the first European countries to drop support for the bill. Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, who admitted that his government’s supporting stance of ACTA had been ‘reckless’, announced the he had written to leaders in the EU, asking them to follow suit, “It would be a sin to maintain a mistaken belief … the agreement does not correspond to the reality of the 21st century. The battle for the right to property should also respect the right to freedom.”

As things currently stand, ACTA is still far from the six ratifications it needs to become active. While the agreement has the signatures of 31 countries, none have ‘ratified’ it so far. And according to popular tech website, it now seems unlikely that the agreement will come into force. An article on the website said, “At this point many countries in Europe that have signed the treaty have set aside ratification in response to public outcry, effectively hampering the ratification and implementation of the treaty.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2012.


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