Acting on ACTA - What We Can Do

Will Tovey's picture

Earlier today, Loz Kaye, leader of the Pirate Party, published a statement highlighting a major threat to the Internet, to civil liberties, and our political and legal systems; ACTA. Following this, the Party has received many requests asking what we, ordinary citizens, can do about this and the best way to stop it.

tl;dr version

  1. Raise awareness of ACTA - make sure people know that it exists and the danger it poses.
  2. Contact your MEPs, urging them to vote against it when they get the chance to (in June, for most of them).
  3. Contact your local MP (or MSPs, AMs and councillors, if you have them), letting them know about ACTA, and why it should be stopped.
  4. Join over 600,000 people across the world in signing AVAAZ's petition against ACTA.
  5. Openly support any of the many organisations campaigning against ACTA, and encourage others to do so as well.

Below is the long version, with details on what has already happened, who to contact, how and when to contact them, and what to say. I have not included a "form letter" to send to elected officials as they can sometimes be counter-productive; receiving a smaller number of personal correspondence on an issue can show a greater level of support for an issue than a larger number of form letters.

What to Do

So what can we, ordinary citizens, do about this treaty?

Raise awareness; In the past, treaties and agreements such as ACTA have survived through secrecy and complacency. They don't sound particularly exciting and, due to being negotiated at an international level, most people including journalists and politicians are unaware about them until they have been passed. With ACTA, however, we have a small window between the signing and ratification by the European Parliament in which we can act.

In order to effectively use this opportunity, we need to raise awareness of ACTA and the problems with it. While thousands have taken to the streets protesting against ACTA in Poland, most people in the UK are unaware the treaty even exists. It is vital that we change this and make sure ordinary people, journalists and politicians know about ACTA and understand why we are opposing it. Together, we can then bring pressure on the relevant Parliaments to put a stop to it.

Within the EU; Despite protests both within and without the European Union infrastructure, the EU (along with the UK) has now signed ACTA, but for it to be binding, the European Parliament has to approve it. The EP has previously voted against the process behind ACTA, and a vote to completely reject the treaty was narrowly defeated by just 16 votes (including all UK Conservative and Labour MEPs, the latter defecting against their European allies to support ACTA, and with the UKIP MEPs abstaining). Given this, there is a good chance that the Parliament can be convinced to reject ACTA for good.

At the moment, ACTA is with the Parliament's International Trade Committee (INTA). This group will be discussing ACTA around the end of February/beginning of March, and are expected to vote on it in April or May. The members of this committee should already be aware of the controversy surrounding ACTA, but hearing from their constituents directly could help persuade them to act on their concerns. A complete list of members of the committee can be found here - please check if any represent your region, and consider getting in touch. Other committees will also be looking at ACTA and reporting back to INTA, so even if your MEPs are not on that committee, it could still be worth talking to them now.

If ACTA gets through the committees, it will come before a full vote of the Parliament. This is currently expected some time in mid-June. As mentioned above, the Parliament previously voted 322-306 in favour of ACTA and there are now 18 more MEPs. There is a real chance that if as many MEPs are made aware of the problems with both the procedures and principles behind ACTA, and the content of it, ACTA can be defeated in the European Parliament.

If you want to talk with your MEPs about ACTA (there are some suggested points to raise below), UK users can email them directly through the Write to Them website

If you want to contact them directly, or using different means, once you have found which MEPs are 'yours', you can look them up on the Parliament's list of members, which provides their contact details.

Westminster MPs; while the UK's Parliament will not have a formal chance to vote on ACTA for quite a while, they can still bring up the issue in debate, forcing the government to take a public position on ACTA. Many MPs may not even know of ACTA's existence, or have been tricked into thinking it is simply a minor trade agreement, rather than an attempt to circumvent the democratic protections of the UK and EU to force extensive copyright and trademark enforcement measures on us. Again, you can email your MP through Write to Them

Again, if you want to talk with them directly, you can find their full contact details on the official Parliament website.

What to Say

There is a wealth of information on ACTA and the problems with it throughout the web, with many groups and blogs providing commentary (although sometimes out of date and thus inaccurate), so I will merely sketch out some of the major points to cover. For those interested in more detail, the full text of the treaty can be found (among other places) on the European Commission's website (25-page pdf file). For analysis, the European Digital Rights group (EDRi) has produced a very good, and human-readable guide to the problems, split into 5 areas.

For those wanting a quick summary for what to discuss with MEPs and MPs, here is a quick list of some of the major issues:

The Process behind ACTA;

  • ACTA was negotiated between various governments, in closed-door meetings, with the details being kept secret (aside from leaked copies).
  • All the existing international groups (the WTO/WIPO, the UN and G8) were deliberately avoided, no doubt as much of ACTA would have been directly rejected by their members. ACTA creates an entirely new organisation on top of the existing ones.
  • Consumer and public interest groups were kept away from negotiations, along with adelegation of MEPs, despite industry lobbyists being allowed into meetings.
  • The treaty has been signed by both the UK and EU before either Parliament has been able to officially examine or discuss it.

While supporters of ACTA may claim there is nothing new here, this should be an unacceptable way of creating new, binding agreements and laws in a democratic society. Even those who feel that something must be done about copyright infringement, this is not the way to address the issues.

The Content of ACTA;

The very premise of ACTA is flawed. It opens by noting that "effective enforcement of intellectual property rights is critical to sustaining economic growth across all industries and globally", despite the fact that there is virtually no evidence to support this claim. The film industry, for example, currently makes around 65% of their revenue from sources they have claimed would put them out of businessin the past; why should the Internet be any different? The same source also highlights a 35% increase in revenue since 2000, during which time online copyright infringement has supposedly been killing their business.

Aside from the premise of ACTA, which needs further investigation, there are many problems with the content of the treaty:

  • ACTA supposedly contains protections for "fundamental principles", but these seem carefully worded so that they are unenforceable and do not cover actual "fundamental rights" (such as the right to a fair trial) enshrined in UK law, or in the Charters and Conventions of the EU and Council of Europe.
  • The text of ACTA is often vague, with unclear definitions, and optional sections. This will create great uncertainty within countries as to what they are and are not obliged to do and whether they need to change their laws, and could hinder attempts to harmonise copyright and trade mark enforcement across the world.
  • Even if ACTA doesn't actually change our law in the UK (which we can't tell yet, due to the uncertainty), it sets a lower limit on the levels of enforcement we must have, preventing the UK from reforming our laws at a later date, to ensure they are proportionate and sensible (rather than allowing for prison time merely for uploading a single song to a file-sharing network, as the current law does).
  • ACTA requires a host of criminal offences for copyright and trademark infringement, despite the fact that the EU (who negotiated this for us) is rarely allowed to meddle with our national criminal system (there are only seven European Crimes, including counterfeiting Euros, and marine pollution).
  • The requirements for criminal infringement are lowered due to a vague definition of "commercial scale" which includes "indirect financial advantage". Combined with the extension to merely "aiding and abetting", and requiring "remedies for prevention and deterrence", this has the potential to criminalise even suggesting that someone visit a known file-sharing website.
  • ACTA includes restrictions on circumventing DRM, making it illegal. While this is already the case in the UK, proposals to relax copyright law for purposes such as format-shifting could be made redundant if they cannot be combined with limits on DRM protection to allow us to use these new rights. It also includes protections for "electronic rights management information", which potentially criminalises the act of renaming a file, or taking a screenshot of something covered by copyright.

There are other problems with ACTA addressed elsewhere, but it should be clear that it has an unacceptable number of flaws; while many of the worst sections were removed during negotiations, enough remains to make ACTA bad for the principles of justice, bad for innovation, and bad for the future of the Internet.