How would you feel if you typed a search term on Google on only to be greeted by the words Access denied. The information you are trying to access is protected by copyright.
Or worse still, you popped into your local chemist to buy some paracetamol, only to be told cheaper versions are no longer in circulation, so you are forced to fork out an eye-watering sum.
I can guess how you would feel: incredibly bewildered.
Caution: before you wave off the scenario as fiction, think again. If the international copyright treaty, ACTA, is passed, it could spell the end of easy access to information as you know it.
ACTA – Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement
ACTA is an international trade agreement negotiated by the European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Australia, Mexico, Morocco, Singapore as well as a few other countries, whose aim is to enforce copyright and tackle counterfeited goods.
Acta has been under negotiation – almost all in secret – since June 2008. Its drafters say it is needed to harmonise international standards to protect the rights of those who produce music, movies, pharmaceuticals, fashion goods, and a range of other products that often fall victim to piracy and intellectual property theft.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that more than $250 billion is lost every year to pirated goods. In Europe, for example, more than €8 billion is lost annually through counterfeit goods entering the market. Inevitably, this affects the competitiveness of indigenous businesses.
The Argument Against ACTA
Online lobbyist and campaigners have been kicking against the treaty. They argue that strict controls of copyright will exclude people from the internet and block access to generic drugs, especially in developing countries. The key arguments put forward are:
- ACTA will stifle free speech. Under the agreement, Internet Service Providers will be legally responsible for what their users do online. Anti-ACTA campaigners believe ISPs will be turned into “Private Copyright Police & Judges”, heavily censoring their networks.
- Health care will suffer as large corporations will have the power to block the manufacture of generic drugs.
‘Fog of Information’
On Wednesday the European Commission approached Europe’s highest court (The European Court of Justice) to decide whether it would be violating any fundamental rights if it adopted ACTA. Protests broke out across Europe earlier in the month over the bid to implement ACTA in the EU. So far 22 out of 27 member states have signed up. However, countries like Germany and the Netherlands have refused to sign the agreement in its current form. Without the consent of all 27 members, the EU cannot ratify the treaty.
EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht said on Wednesday that an opinion from the European court of justice would clear what he called the "fog of misinformation" surrounding ACTA. He said:
"This debate must be based upon facts and not upon the misinformation or rumour that has dominated social media sites and blogs in recent weeks...
"Acta will not censor websites or shut them down; Acta will not hinder freedom of the internet or freedom of speech."
He said the agreement simply asks internet providers to co-operate with national authorities to crack down on online piracy, for example by cutting off internet access to users who illegally download music or films if that is part of the legal framework in that country.
"Intellectual property is Europe's main raw material, but the problem is that we currently struggle to protect it outside the EU. This hurts our companies, destroys jobs and harms our economies," De Gucht said.
If both sides are crying foul, how do we resolve the issue? Are the fears of the campaigners real or imagined? Below Uchenna Ugwu, a legal expert on trade related aspects of intellectual property gives her verdict:
“The problem is that intellectual property is a double edged sword; anywhere that it is implemented it also has social effects. While the copyright holder will consider it illegal for anyone to have access to information online, the truth is that the majority of those that access such information online are unable to use the information to produce anything else.
You and I are not ‘copying’ the material per se to write our own books or songs, but simply to learn a little more. Such persons cannot even afford the authors books/literature. Hence copyright is not really affected. Similarly, if a person cannot afford more expensive patented medicine, a cheaper generic version should not be denied to them. But this is what this agreement if ratified that is what it will do to you.”
“Furthermore you have rights as well, the right to freedom of expression, the right to life, the right to privacy. None of your rights as a ‘User’ of intellectual goods were mentioned or discussed, only those of the copyright holder.
It must be pointed out that ACTA removes legal safeguards that protect Internet Service Providers from liability for the actions of their subscribers in effect giving ISPs no option but to comply with privacy invasions. In addition, ACTA would also facilitate privacy violations by trademark and copyright holders against private citizens suspected of infringement activities without any sort of legal due process. Here is a good example: under ACTA’s ‘Border Measures’ officials at borders can conduct random searches of laptops, MP3 players, and cellular phones for illegally downloaded or "ripped" music and movies. Travellers with infringing content would be subject to a fine and may have their devices confiscated or destroyed.
Indeed only the huge monopolies setting inflammatory prices on goods were called to discuss the agreements provisions.
My suggestion is that we either keep a watch out against ACTA, or else ACTA will make our daily lives unrecognizable!”