MEXICO CITY -- Mexico this week quietly signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, a controversial multinational treaty that sponsors say protects intellectual property but opponents call an assault on privacy and freedom of expression.
Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico signed the agreement Wednesday on behalf of the Mexican government in Japan. The signing immediately set off condemnation among Internet activists in Mexico, who called the government's move a strategic ruse in an election year.
Mexico's Senate must ratify the treaty, but the chamber rejected ACTA in 2010 (link in Spanish).
By signing it while Congress is not in session -- and just days after the presidential election -- the administration of President Felipe Calderon is in effect forcing the issue to the front of the agenda once the new Congress convenes in September and before Calderon's term expires. The president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, assumes office for a six-year term in December. Peña Nieto has so far not indicated a position on the treaty.
ACTA has been negotiated and debated by world governments since it first emerged in 2008. The agreement would help improve international efforts to prosecute content and intellectual-property piracy, including digital and Internet platforms, but also covering trademarks, brands and pirated pharmaceuticals.
Opponents say governments could abuse ACTA and target private users with criminal charges for downloading copyrighted material, for example, or force Internet service providers to monitor the online activity of users and turn data over to authorities (link in Spanish).
The United States is a key signatory as of October 2011 with Australia, Canada, Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan. Last week, the European Parliament rejected ACTA in a crucial vote, a setback for the treaty. ACTA is "too vague, open to misinterpretation, and could therefore jeopardize citizens' liberties," the parliament said in a statement.
Mexico's signing, although contingent on ratification by the new Senate, revives momentum for ACTA supporters.
Rodrigo Roque Diaz, director of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, or IMPI, said in an interview that the government would ask Congress to develop legislation in the fall that would "jointly" protect Internet users concerned about privacy.
"The idea is not to criminalize the independent, private user of the Internet; the idea is to sanction those who are violating author rights on a commercial scale," Roque Diaz told The Times.
Piracy in Mexico, which is commonly associated with outdoor markets where illegally produced DVDs and CDs are sold, "generates great economic and tax losses" estimated at 2.7 million pesos (about $200,000) an hour, he said.
Activists in Mexico promised this week to vigorously oppose ratification of ACTA once the Senate convenes. They've started a Twitter campaign to request that each senator-elect stake out a position now (link in Spanish).
So far, leftist legislators are assumed to oppose ACTA, while the ruling conservative party members are assumed to support it. Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party will hold the most seats in the new Senate, but the party's position on ACTA is yet unclear.
Antonio Martinez, a free-speech advocate and one of the forefront voices against the treaty during the Senate's working-group debates on the issue in 2009 and 2010, said the government's signing of ACTA is "trickery."
"It's a very bad signal from the government to the outgoing Senate and to civil society; it's disdainful of all the work done in the legislature," Martinez said Friday. ACTA "is dangerous for what it doesn't say. The IMPI is wrong, and it's almost as though they haven't even read the treaty," he said.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: A vendor shows pirated DVDs on a sidewalk in central Mexico City in 2006. Credit: Sarah Meghan Lee / For The Times