The negotiators of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) need to lift veil of secrecy and open its discussions to the public, according to a major Canadian public interest group.
In a letter co-signed by over 100 public interest organizations around the world, including the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, ACTA officials are urged to immediately publish both its draft text and pre-draft discussion papers before continuing to craft its treaty. According to CIPPIC, the letter comes in the wake of industry speculation that ACTA’s proposed treaty may push ISPs to monitor all consumers’ Internet activities, interfere with fair use copyright materials, and criminalize peer-to-peer file sharing.
“Our biggest concern is that this is an intentional strategy on the part of parties who don’t want to have a public discourse and who don’t want to give any dialogue to outside organizations or creator groups who have a dissenting voice,” David Fewer, staff counsel with CIPPIC, said.
ACTA’s goals consist of establishing an international legal framework on intellectual property rights and reducing the distribution of counterfeit materials. The organization is comprised of representatives from Canada, the United States, Mexico, the European Union, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
According to CIPPIC, the lack of transparency throughout ACTA’s negotiations – coupled with a growing perception that powerful lobbyists from the music and film industry are influencing ACTA officials – could have harmful consequences for all citizens and businesses in democratic countries. Fewer referred to ACTA’s conduct as policy laundering – a tactic he said was used by Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration when trying to pass the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the late 1990s.
“The law was defeated in Congress because creator groups, public institutions, student groups and even technology firms said it was crazy,” he said. “The Clinton administration decided to turn to an international forum that was insulated from the democratic forum – the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In that organization, there wasn’t sufficiently organized opposition to extreme copyright laws.”
The U.S. DMCA was subsequently passed not because it was good public policy for the U.S., Fewer explained, but because it met a manufactured international obligation. He fears the same situation might be occurring with ACTA, as the international forum would potentially circumvent political accountability.
“You don’t get balanced policy by asking the wolves how sheep should be treated,” he said. “You need to get all the stakeholders involved and have an exchange of ideas and actually negotiate something that reflects the public interest. You can’t do that behind closed doors.”
One issue that is central to ACTA’s objectives, but might get lost in the shuffle, is the outcry from some manufacturers struggling to fight against piracy and counterfeiting. Upon ACTA’s establishment, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) applauded the organization and said that effective anti-counterfeiting measures would ensure electronics contain genuine and reliable semiconductors.
Semiconductor counterfeiting revolves around replacing labels, said Daryl Hatano, vice-president of public policy at the SIA, said last October. Semiconductor labels could be changed by counterfeiters to indicate a different brand or better performance, which could affect devices, Hatano said.
“If there’s one bad chip, it can cause the failure of the computer,” Hatano said. People who buy counterfeit chips could lose money too by overpaying for fake chips, Hatano said.
But while some technology associations might be in support of ACTA, Fewer said that many others should be legitimately concerned.
“The people who have an interest in creating devices and tools for consumers should be concerned about this,” he said. “They have a profound interest in things like fair use and fair dealing, but they’re not being invited to the discussion.”
Without public consultation, Fewer said that technology mandates, such as obligations to put in place online content filtering, could potentially come out of ACTA. ISPs already feeling the heat from the entertainment and government sectors to crack down on file sharing activities will feel greater pressure to enlist their technology, energy and intelligence to “snitch and spy” on their customers, he said.
— With files from Agam Shah, IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau)