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Web freedom groups trumpet EU defeat of anti-piracy agreement

July 4, 2012 | 10:05 am

Acta

In a victory trumpeted by Internet freedom groups, the European Parliament soundly rejected an international agreement to combat piracy Wednesday after protests against the pact swept Europe. The vote reportedly came down to just 39 ballots in favor, 478 against and 165 abstentions.

“This is a remarkable development that was virtually unthinkable even a year ago,” University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist wrote on his blog, cheering the decision.

Backers of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, including the United States, Canada and Japan, said it would curb counterfeiting and illegal downloads and streaming of movies and music, creating a common international standard for policing piracy. Many countries have already signed ACTA. European associations tied to publishing, television and other creative industries hailed joining them as a way to protect their members' work.

But a range of organizations — from Internet freedom groups to aid agencies — argued that ACTA would have nasty side effects. Free speech groups complained that the pact could infringe on privacy and push Internet providers to police what people share online with few safeguards for their rights, drawing little distinction between people who use pirated files for their own use and those who profited from them.

“Power over what we see and do online is effectively given away to businesses — potentially outside the rule of law,” the Open Rights Group based in London argued. It added, “We are concerned about how easily this power over information online could be used mistakenly or inappropriately.”

In addition, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam argued that measures meant to stop counterfeiting would hurt access to generic medicines by allowing border officials to detain or destroy goods that allegedly infringe on copyrights without court oversight. Disputes over medicine names or packaging that have nothing to do with health threats are common, Doctors Without Borders argued.

The debate spawned street demonstrations across Europe earlier this year. The hacking group Anonymous took credit for taking down government websites in protest. More than 2.8-million people signed an online protest against the law hosted by Avaaz.org.

The Wednesday defeat upset business and trade groups that argued the fears of losing Internet privacy and freedom were overblown. Creative industries in Europe would lose out as a result, they argued.

“Tens of thousands of jobs in the EU are at risk or lost because of product piracy. The health of millions of consumers is endangered by fake or substandard products. Today we passed up a chance to improve all that,” German representative Daniel Caspary told Deutsche Welle.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said the European Commission would wait for an opinion from the European Court of Justice on whether the agreement "harms any of the fundamental rights of European citizens — including freedom of speech." But he insisted the fight against piracy wasn't over.

"With the rejection of ACTA, the need to protect the backbone of Europe's economy across the globe — our innovation, our creativity, our ideas, our intellectual property — does not disappear," he said in a statement. The EU will "consult with our international partners on how to move forward on this issue."

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— Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Green Party members of the European Parliament demonstrate against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement on Wednesday at a parliamentary session in Strasbourg, France. Credit: Christian Lutz / Associated Press.

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