Despite freezing conditions across much of the Continent, thousands are expected to the streets of European cities today – but the protests aren't about austerity measures, bailouts, or the Middle East. They are about an obscure international copyright agreement that protesters say threatens free speech online and the future of the Internet.
ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, follows the now-delayed US legislation Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). Proponents say the agreement will protect the economic value of intellectual and artistic labor and create a framework to enforce existing laws. Opponents counter that it forces Internet service providers (ISPs) to police users, threatening individual freedom.
Confusion reigns: previous drafts of ACTA would have required ISPs to disconnect users who repeatedly downloaded copyrighted material without permission, but the most recent versions leave the question of ISPs' legal liability to the participating countries. Other controversial measures, such as searches for counterfeit goods at border crossings, which many feared would apply to the contents of laptops and MP3 players, are restricted to commercial goods shipping. (To read the document, click here.)
The European Commission and US Trade Representative have both issued "myth-busting" documents attempting to allay the worst fears.
Despite this and changes to the text, ACTA remains a heated point of contention.
Sebastian Meyer, attorney with law firm Brandi in Bielefeld, Germany, says the entire affair would have benefited from greater transparency.
"I find it quite interesting that most persons who protest against ACTA focus on the way the text was negotiated. The other major issue seems [to be] – from the perspective of the protesting persons – the fear of a tighter surveillance of Internet usage. However, protesters have to accept that the Internet is neither a legal vacuum nor unlegislated area," he says.
RELATED: PIPA and SOPA: What you need to know
Some nations pull back
Twenty-two EU member states endorsed to the agreement last month, aiming to strengthen enforcement of intellectual property rights. Yesterday, Germany joined Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Latvia in pulling back from the agreement, and an EU parliament vote on it, not expected until May at the earliest, may scupper the deal.
Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the US signed in October 2011.
Protests have been as much virtual as in the flesh. An online petition calling for the rejection of ACTA has been signed by more than 1.75 million people. Hackers have also targeted websites supporting the agreement.
Industry bodies are concerned about ACTA's scope. "It would be a sad day for the European Internet industry if the [EU] parliament rushed on this," says Andrea D'Incecco, public affairs manager for EuroISPA, a group representing European Internet service providers.
Mr. D'Incecco says ACTA would change European law, which currently requires a court order to be served on ISPs before they take action against unlawful online material. He also says the "secrecy" of the negotiations, initiated by the European Commission but until recently excluding the EU parliament, is a problem.
EuroISPA is in favor of combating infringement, but any strengthening of existing law requires "a proper democratic mandate determined by all of the EU institutions," he adds."We didn't have any real discussion in parliament until now, despite this treaty dating back five years."
A spokesperson for Marc Vanheukelen, EU trade commissioner, said ACTA was negotiated by the commission and member states, and public debate is not being ignored. "We welcome an open debate on it but, of course, we welcome a debate based on facts. There are a lot fears and myths around."
Joe McNamee of the European Digital Rights (EDRI) lobby says ACTA's marriage of counterfeiting and unauthorized copying conflates two different problems and risks trivializing the issue of counterfeit medications, which can be damaging to health.
"Either you're saying [illegally] downloading a Madonna song is as serious as a distributing life-threatening counterfeit drugs, or you're saying distributing life-threatening counterfeit drugs is as serious as a downloaded Madonna song."
Not just about millionaire performers
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America's support for ACTA has made the treaty a lightning rod for activists. They have poured scorn on multi-millionaire performers and executives complaining about profit losses from downloads, but the difficulties faced in earning a living reach down to young artists on the rise and the professionals and technicians involved in getting a recording made.
Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming book Digital Vertigo, says simplistic views are all too common.
"The opposition to measures like this is supported and funded by companies for whom it's not in their interest," he says. "They've successfully built up this idea of a struggle between good and evil, with the media companies playing the evil role. In fact there are legitimate interests on both sides."
A London band weighs in
Up-and-coming London-based rock band "The Cast of Cheers" recently signed to a label owned by Universal Music Group. Unlike the band's first album, which was given away free online, the next recording will be a commercial release.
Guitarist Neil Adams says making money is a real problem for musicians, but thinks education is a better strategy than law. "People don't realize the work that goes into it [creating a record], or how much the band pays" for production, he says.
"You don't get the same results working on your own. There is skill and labor involved. On this next record, we recorded with [producer] Luke Smith. It wouldn't be the record it is without working with him and others [and] they [the record company] have PR and marketing people getting our name out and getting our music into the hands of [radio] DJs. We couldn't do that on our own."
Daniel Müllensiefen, psychology lecturer at the University of London, was formerly a consultant with the German music industry. He says the file-sharing genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
"Buying physical records, I think that time is over. It will become a niche market, like vinyl is now. The music industry isn't even seriously trying to fight that anymore. What's going on now is more driven by the film industry," he says.
ACTA has become the latest salvo in an online culture war, and previously supportive politicians have started backtracking in the face of growing anger.
Michal Boni, Poland's digitization minister, said his country may refuse to ratify the deal, while Slovenia's ambassador to Japan, Helena Drnovsek Zorko, has apologized for signing, saying ACTA "limits and withholds the freedom of engagement on the largest and most significant network in human history."
In a surprising twist, a group of Polish lawmakers opposed to ACTA hid behind Guy Fawkes masks associated with the "Anonymous" hacker collective during a parliamentary session.
Kader Arif, a French member of the EU Parliament and its lead negotiator on ACTA, quit the position in protest on Jan. 26.
"To be honest, I do not believe ACTA will bring major improvements with regards to this legitimate cause. First of all, the EU is already well-armed against counterfeiting, [and] the main challenge for [digital] industries is to get their rights better protected abroad, and here the sole fact that neither China nor India are signatories of ACTA leaves quite some doubts on the efficiency of the agreement," he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Arif also raised concern about generic medicine.
"Because ACTA is about [intellectual property] infringement in general, generic drugs will be treated under the agreement in the same way as counterfeit drugs, although the two things are completely different. [Counterfeits] poses a real threat to public health, while [generics are] a living necessity for millions of people in developing countries," he said.
It comes down to jobs
The real battle, one that will continue with or without ACTA, is economic. Both sides remain resolute and claim their strategy is the one that creates jobs. Speaking in October, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk said ACTA was "essential to American jobs in innovative and creative industries."
Howard Gantman, spokesperson for the MPAA, says in the US alone, 2.2 million people rely on the film and television industries for their livelihoods.
"The average pay is about $55,000. This is not about stars on the red carpet," he says, adding, "In free [no-cost] marketplaces, there are things that aren't free. You're being mined for data [for targeted advertising] or, in some cases, opening yourself up to malware. You might get the material for no cost, but it's never free."
Critics remain unconvinced, saying the Internet creates new opportunities and industries: "Any rational person will say the economy needs an open Internet," says Mr. McNamee, of the EDRI lobby group.