The online community’s recent victory over US Congress’ efforts to institute SOPA and PIPA underscores the growing power of the Internet as an effective means of political lobbying. It also casts in bold relief the widening gulf between the political establishment and the under-forty crowd. Senator Christopher Dodd, a principle backer of the bills, recently expressed his incredulity, marveling at the technology industry’s “ability to organize and communicate directly with consumers.” He went on to call it a “watershed event” the likes of which he had not seen in over 30 years in politics.¹
But don’t uncork the champagne just yet. During an otherwise upbeat panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, US Rep. Darell Issa interrupted the high-fiving by warning of a larger threat to Internet freedoms contained in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). He characterized ACTA as “more dangerous than SOPA…, once implemented, it creates a whole new enforcement system and will virtually tie the hands of Congress to undo it.”²
At this point you may be wondering how a Congressional bill can tie the hands of Congress. It can do so because it isn’t a bill at all. In fact, ACTA is a far-reaching global treaty that seeks to normalize copyright protection and intellectual property standards across participating nations. It was signed by a number of countries late last year in Tokyo including the US, Canada, Japan and South Korea; as of yesterday, 22 EU member states signed as well (though it still needs to be ratified by the European Parliament).
Proponents of ACTA state that the agreement does not threaten Internet freedom in any way. Indeed, the Office of the US Trade Representative (the guys who signed ACTA) describes the agreement thusly:
“The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is a groundbreaking initiative by key trading partners to strengthen the international legal framework for effectively combating global proliferation of commercial-scale counterfeiting and piracy. In addition to calling for strong legal frameworks, the agreement also includes innovative provisions to deepen international cooperation and to promote strong intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement practices. Together, these provisions will help to support American jobs in innovative and creative industries against intellectual property theft.”
Sounds reasonable enough, but here are three reasons ACTA concerns me:
The Obama Administration signed it as an executive agreement rather than a treaty. Executive agreements do not need congressional approval. Congress’ inability to change ACTA is what Rep. Issa and others find so troubling.
The US Trade Representative’s ACTA site page contains a panel on the right-hand side entitled “Support for ACTA”, within which you will find virtually all of the backers of SOPA and PIPA, including Sen. Chris Dodd.
ACTA will be enforced by an as-yet-undetermined international governing body outside of current global institutions such as the WTO.
The Battle Rages On
As I noted in my previous SOPA/PIPA blog, ACTA is the first battle in what will likely be a long-running world war between the online community and supranational governmental organizations. For example, many experts fear the nascent Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement may include anti-piracy measures more restrictive than ACTA.
What makes supranational initiatives like ACTA and TPP so troubling is the utter lack of clarity with respect to the meaning and enforcement of their provisions. Such regulatory vagueness and opacity will likely deter progress, as internet service providers spend more time and money trying to stay in compliance with unclear laws and less time doing what they do best - innovating.
¹ NY Times
Image Courtesy of Arminh on stock.xchng