OPINION: Secret ACTA deal to change IT forever

Don’t let its name fool you.


The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement might give you ideas of knock-off Burberry bags and fake designer sunglasses, but it’s actually an effort by the entertainment industry to push through new copyright laws.


Trade officials from the U.S., the U.K., the E.U., Canada and a few other countries are participating in the deal, which up until a few recent leaks, has been shrouded in secrecy.


The agreement is still in the draft stages right now, but by this time next year, it could be impacting our laws with devastating consequences for IT professionals and the tech industry.


ACTA would basically change the way we all use the Internet and modern technology. The role of Internet Service Providers like Rogers Communications Inc. and Bell Canada Enterprises Inc. will also change, giving these companies unbelievable new powers to stop “copyright violations.”


For starters, ISPs will be forced to block anything that could be pirated material. The impact this will have on the music industry is obvious, but what about for software developers?


Maybe a start-up creates an app and decides to give it out for free to create some buzz. How will Rogers or Bell be able to differentiate this freeware software from pirated commercial software?


This might be especially difficult for ISPs, because so much of this freeware nowadays is posted to file-sharing services and blogs. They’ve yet to invent the program that would help Rogers and Bell sort through all of this information accurately. Unless these ISPs would be willing to hire hundreds, if not thousands, of new employees to surf the Web all day looking for these differentiations, I’d say this would be an impossible task for them.


Another regulation ACTA would put into place is the “three strikes” policy. If your ISP accuses you of downloading any type of copyrighted material on three separate occasions, you are banned from the Internet from one year and forced to pay a fine.


The trade officials creating this rule are obviously targeting the average online user with this provision, but what about the impact this would have on enterprises?


As an IT manager for a large company, if your employee illegally downloads an app or a widget from a blog, your whole company is basically going to be on one strike. If the ISPs actually manage to monitor all of this effectively (which as I mentioned earlier is extremely unlikely), it wouldn’t take too long for many companies to be on the receiving end of this ban.


Adding a loophole to the law which allows businesses to be exempt from the ban wouldn’t work either, because so many Canadians and Americans have home offices and small businesses.


Those behind ACTA will probably realize this sooner or later and will likely ramp up the fines or something. But in any event, if the “three strikes” ban stands, users would think twice about downloading anything over the Web — even from “legitimate” and official Web sites.


Next up for ACTA is a ban on breaking copy-protection measures by making it illegal to crack the digital rights management (DRM) tools put on DVDs, MP3s and other software. This type of ban works in theory, but the unintended consequences it could bring make it impractical.


If you, as a consumer or an IT manager, legally purchase a piece of software, you will not be able to copy it under any circumstances if it has a copy-protection scheme attached.


But if you listen to security researchers, this might actually be the least of your problems, because DRM-protected malware and viruses would also be illegal to crack. Even scarier is a situation where a major piece of commercial software has vulnerability on it that needs to be patched.


Brian O’Higgins, a notable Canadian security researcher, once asked me, “What if there’s a vulnerability in a commonly used piece of software that lives in all servers, and that vulnerability is related to a (DRM) mechanism?” Under ACTA, security researchers would be handcuffed.


I’ve only highlighted these three provisions apparently contained in ACTA. Many others have leaked and many more will probably surface in the coming months.


Now, if you haven’t been following this story, you’re probably going to be pretty shocked over all of this. Of course, anybody following copyright reform will have expected this.


The reason for this treaty’s existence is blatantly obvious. The entertainment industry lobby is not going to give up.


Copyright reform bills have been met with huge criticism in Canada and throughout every country involved in this treaty. Here at home, the Conservatives have found it difficult to gain support for its proposed bills.


Remember those copyright reform consultations that Industry Canada held with Canadians over the summer? Well, that now appears to have been an exercise in futility, just something to give us the illusion that Canadians actually have a say on this issue.


But while ACTA continues to be debated and modified behind closed doors, all hope is not lost to prevent this legislation from sending the IT industry back to the stone age.


It goes without saying that the more pressure put on local MPs, the more they will get the message that Canada’s participation in this treaty is not wanted. The lobby groups will only have a politician’s ears as long as the politician feels their job is safe.


If they believe that enough people will come out and vote against them because of copyright, they will change their tune.


To do this, you need to spread the word to everybody that you know who might not understand this issue. People who sympathize with the entertainment industry and believe stiffer copyright laws are needed might be unaware of the unintended consequences of what ACTA’s proposing.


Finally, pressure needs to be put on the ISPs. EuroISPA, a trade group representing Europe’s Internet service providers, announced this week that ACTA would undermine the openness of the Internet and hurt innovation.


Bell and Rogers must renounce this international treaty as well and try to influence government officials against it.


If these ISPs put as much time into fighting for their customers’ rights to an open Internet as they do fighting each other’s advertising claims, maybe Canadians wouldn’t be clamoring for more competition in the telecom space.

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