ACTA vs. angry citizens taking action

People in the four Visegrad countries do not take to the streets that often and a “culture of protests” is not a characteristic that you would first think of when talking about the V4. Yet towards the end of January and all through February a wave of protests were witnessed across the region and especially in Poland – protests that actually achieved their aim. What got people off their couches and away from the TV? The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

Foto: Creative Commons/ Marcin Kubon

12. 04. 2012

On 26 January 2012 representatives of the EU and 22 of its member states (excluding Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Netherlands and Slovakia) signed the ACTA treaty at a rather private ceremony in Tokyo. The treaty should, as its proponents state, establish international standards and a legal framework for intellectual property rights enforcement. However, when news about the treaty and its content reached the European continent a genuine wave of discontent and resistance erupted.

Poland was among the first and loudest countries to protest ACTA, with more than one hundred thousand people saying “no” to the treaty in the streets. The protests did not leave the parliament unaffected as members of the leftist-liberal party, the Palikot’s Movement, covered their faces with Guy Fawkes masks as a symbol of protest against ACTA. The photo soon went viral on the web and Poland gained even more sympathizers. Under pressure from angry citizens but also in an effort to raise questions about the necessity and content of the treaty, Polish PM Donald Tusk officially decided that his country would not ratify the treaty under its current version.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring countries the protests were not as strong or as powerful as they were in Poland. In Slovakia the opposition on the streets did not have much momentum. The main reason for this might have been that people were busy joining the “anti-Gorilla” demonstrations that erupted after a file was allegedly leaked to the press that claimed to provide evidence of the corruption and bribery of high profile politicians by an investment company in years 2005-2006. Perhaps one of the explanations for the rather small number of protesters in the streets compared to the projected attendance announced on the anti-ACTA Facebook pages is that people decided to protest on the Internet instead. Indedd, the anti-ACTA protests were accompanied by dozens of attacks on the websites of the governments or national organizations protecting the rights of authors and publishers, such as SOZA in Slovakia or OSA in Czech Republic.

On February 11th, the day when ACTA protests were jointly organized in all major, but also many smaller, cities in the EU, thousands of people again marched in the streets of the Visegrad countries. And the protests did have an impact. The public debate forced the politicians to take sides in the conflict and either express their support for the current version of ACTA or try to put a halt to the treaty (since the treaty had already been signed the text could not be amended, only ratified or rejected).

Perspectives of the 20th and 21st century

Perhaps surprisingly for some, on February 3rd Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that Poland was suspending the ratification process of ACTA. To explain why he changed his mind only a few days after signing the treaty, Tusk said, besides also offering other arguments, that while previously, due to his age, he had approached the treaty from a 20th century perspective, he now realized that the treaty required a 21st century perspective. As for the current situation, the process is still suspended and PM Tusk has said that his position will not change unless he is sure that ACTA is 100% safe for citizens. Additionally, Tusk also has admitted that the current laws in Poland will be examined.

A relatively similar scenario also unfolded in the Czech Republic. Three days after PM Tusk’s official announcement that Poland would suspend ratification, Czech PM Petr Nečas also confirmed that his government would not ratify ACTA for the time being. Before doing so, the treaty will be examined in detail and the government will call on experts for analysis regarding the possible practical implications of ACTA.

Although Slovakia did not sign ACTA before the protests erupted (not because it would reject it in principle, but due to legislative obstacles), the now ex-Minister of Economy Juraj Miškov also interrupted the legislative process that could lead to signing and ratifying the treaty while using arguments similar to those used by Tusk or Nečas. Currently it is extremely unlikely that Slovakia will support ACTA as current PM-elect Robert Fico (SMER-SD) was among the first politicians to criticize ACTA and has stated that the current version is not acceptable to him.

Unlike the three aforementioned Visegrad countries, in Hungary the government has not yet dealt with the question of the ratification of ACTA, and it has offered no official opinion on the matter. However, as Mrs. Vannai from the National Board Against Counterfeiting said, “a wide public consultation is planned before the decision will be taken up in Parliament.”

Why all the effort?

One of the main arguments of the broad camp protesting ACTA is the lack of information about the treaty and the communication gap between those writing the treaty and those it will directly affect. However, the complete list of objections against ACTA is much longer.

What all people protesting ACTA agree on unanimously – including some politicians as well as members of pirate parties from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – is that the treaty was accepted under a cloak of secrecy, which in turn undermines its legitimacy. The second argument against the treaty is the fact that it would emphasize intellectual property rights, unacceptably limit free speech and thus also cause serious damage to the foundations of democracy. Furthermore, as the Czech Pirate Party explains, “article 3 paragraph 27 is a great content problem of the treaty because it binds countries to urge companies on their territory to introduce corporate censorship or other measures that on most other occasions even the state would be unable to implement.” According to the Hungarian Pirate Party, “the agreement would put an unnecessary burden on the activities of the online community.”

In addition to these facts, the Czech pirates also add that “ACTA conserves the current state of affairs,” which according to them is already “untenable and starts from the ill-founded principle that copying is a problem.” Another argument is that although the “yes” camp says that 90 to 95% of ACTA’s content is already law, that still leaves at least 5% that could be very shrewdly misused. This is directly linked to the other problem, the vagueness of ACTA, which allows many possible interpretations that could lead to restricting personal rights and censorship of the Internet.

Furthermore, to a certain degree the issue of freedom, specifically freedom of expression, still resonates in post-communist societies. Although it has now been more than twenty years since the end of communism, there are still many who remember the time when the government could interfere with privacy. The uncensored browsing for information and the legal sharing of information on the Internet are seen as a matter of course in a democratic country; people are not willing to give them up (again) to governments or multinational corporations.

All in all, the V4 pirates along with protesters on the street and in the virtual world jointly agree that there is no need for a treaty such as ACTA and that its implementation would threaten freedom on the Internet.

Finally, what about the arguments in favor of the ratification of ACTA? For example, the National Board Against Counterfeiting in Hungary argues that “there will be no need to amend any of the current legislation in the EU because it corresponds to the content of ACTA.” Furthermore, they go on to dismiss concerns such as Internet censorship, the violation of fundamental rights or the criminalization of users sharing content. In the three other V4 countries similar organizations (SOZA in Slovakia, OSA in the Czech Republic and ZAiKS in Poland) declined to provide statements for this article; however, none of them have directly or publicly criticized ACTA. On the contrary, ZAiKS has put up an official statement on their website in support of ACTA and expressing disappointment in PM Tusk’s decision.

Slow death of ACTA in the EU?

Although the European Council unanimously aproved ACTA in December 2011 and the European Commission along with the 22 EU member states referred to above signed it in January of this year, recently the Commission suspended the attempt to ratify ACTA and reffered the treaty to the European Court of Justice. The Court will review it and decide whether it violates any of the EU Fundamental Rights. Even though the European Parliament still has the power to approve ACTA at the plenary session in June, with millions of people signing the petition sent to the EP, with a large number of MEPs against it and, last but not least, with the pending decision of the ECJ, the chances for approval are slim.

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