Australians torn over promises, risks of coal-seam 'fracking'

World Now 01
Lock the Gate appears to be a fitting name for Australia’s protest movement against hydraulic fracturing. It took activists years to identify threats to public health from "fracking," a classic case of getting mobilized only after the proverbial horse has escaped.

GlobalFocusAustralians in the rural reaches of Queensland greeted fracking with gusto when the northeastern state’s political leaders began about seven years ago to tout the profit potential of the unconventional extraction method that blasts sand, water and chemicals into coal and shale seams. Ambitious projects were drafted. More than 4,500 wells were drilled in barely two years, and work has begun on a 250-mile pipeline from the gas fields to Gladstone Harbor and a massive liquefaction facility there. Once construction of the port complex on Curtis Island is completed in 2014, gas will be converted to liquefied natural gas and shipped north to energy-hungry Asian neighbors.

It wasn’t until the buildup got into full swing about three years ago that locals began complaining of distressing side effects of fracking. Activists claim drinking-water aquifers have been contaminated, groundwater depleted and greenhouse gases released along a three-mile stretch of the Condamine River, which at times appears to be boiling.

Dredging in Gladstone Harbor has been blamed for disease outbreaks among fish and mud crabs. Marine scientists attribute the sickness to toxic metals being stirred up from the seabed. Port developers say the defects and deaths were caused by an excess of fresh water from seasonal flooding.

“What was a wonderful fish nursery has turned into an industrial harbor, with ships that will be driving straight through the Great Barrier Reef,” said Matt Landos, a University of Sydney researcher and private consultant in aquatic animal health.

A greater irritant for Australians, Landos said, is the lack of information being provided on the environmental and health costs entailed in the race to make Australia the No. 1 LNG exporter in the world by 2020.

Gas output in historically coal-dependent Australia took off in the last decade, beginning with undersea extraction off the northwestern coast. It quickly swept to the more populous east coast with the discovery of major coal-seam deposits in the Bowen and Surat basins that extend from Queensland into New South Wales.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration in its 2011 world energy outlook reports that Australia, already the fourth-biggest exporter of LNG, has the largest proven natural gas reserves in the Asia-Pacific region, with 110 trillion cubic feet. It has nearly four times that volume in technically recoverable shale gas, the agency estimates, leaving it well positioned to fill the booming energy needs of the region.

Queensland’s new premier, Campbell Newman, campaigned on a platform of support for the LNG buildup but insisted before his election in March that it wouldn’t be “at any cost,” that the agricultural state's farmland had to be protected.

But activists charge that pursuit of the gas bonanza has been unbridled. And the acrimony has only intensified since the appointment of rancher John Cotter as “gas sheriff,” charged with resolving disputes between landowners and gas industry interests. Cotter’s son, John Jr., is founder of a private company that does consulting and project management in mining operations, including contracts with the multibillion-dollar Queensland Curtis Project expanding coal seam fracking and helping build an underground pipeline.

Lock the Gate Chairman Drew Hutton accuses the Cotters of having an “intolerable” conflict of interest and calls the appointment “a most appalling, short-sighted decision,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported last month.

Landos accuses the Queensland government of being blinded to the environmental threats of expanded fracking by “starry-eyed economic forecasts” of Australia emerging as the new LNG global powerhouse.

“It’s a false accounting that doesn’t take into consideration the costs of environmental cleanup,” the veterinary scientist complained in a telephone interview from Sydney. Expectations of jobs and export income, he added, “are leading to tremendous enthusiasm among our politicians to push the industry forward with minimal impediment.”

He worries that the all-out drive for LNG dominance will destroy coastal fisheries and damage sites of natural beauty in exchange for an economy dependent on gas that could be exhausted in 25 years.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warned the Australian government in June that its rapid LNG development plan was posing “a significant risk” to the Great Barrier Reef, which has been under World Heritage protection since 1981. It extends from Gladstone Harbor northward along the Queensland coast and would be traversed by gas exporting ships headed for China, Japan and Taiwan.

UNESCO asked the Queensland government to provide assurances by February 2013 that port development will be brought under control and the reef protected, warning that otherwise the site may be designated as "in danger," a shaming censure for any First World national steward.

Campbell, the state premier, responded to the world body report with assurances that the environment would be protected, "but we are not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down."

Lock the Gate and other anti-fracking groups have exploded over the last year as farmers have seen their water tables drop and their land littered with mine tailings, said Mariann Lloyd-Smith, a lawyer and senior advisor to the International POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Elimination Network. The groups seek clarity on what is being injected into the coal seams. Companies often refuse to disclose such information, saying the formulas are industrial secrets.

Groups such as Australia’s National Toxins Network have been collecting data on pollution and waste to use in legal challenges that have become so prevalent that some fracking companies are giving up and handing in their exploration permits, Lloyd-Smith said.

Unlike in the United States, where property owners hold the rights to resources beneath their land, the Australian government owns everything below the topsoil. The Gasfields Commission has the authority to compel landowners to accommodate energy exploration, typically resulting in compensation of about $1,500 per well, Lloyd-Smith said. That's turning out to be too little to clean up the mess once drilling is over, driving up opposition across Australia.

Temporary bans on fracking in the two states south of Queensland -– New South Wales and Victoria –- have been enacted in response to public demands for investigation of environmental damage claims.

“When one farmer locks his gate, the companies have the right to take the case to arbitration or to the courts, and they often do. But when 100 farmers lock their gates, it’s a case of diminishing returns for the companies,” Lloyd-Smith said. “It’s that sort of consolidation of the community opposition that to a degree is winning the battle.”

"To a degree" may be the operative assessment, as energy industry leaders are fighting back. In a speech in Melbourne this month, ExxonMobil Australia President John Dashwood blamed the fracking bans on “those who run agendas on emotional messages.” He pointed to reduced greenhouse gas emissions as a tangible benefit from replacing coal-generated power with natural gas from shale and coal seams.

With more than $500 billion in LNG-purchase commitments from Asian neighbors already on the books, even the more vociferous cries of fracking opponents are being drowned out by the drilling and blasting from new wells cropping up by the dozens each week.

As Hutton of Lock the Gate recently warned, "The Queensland environment is going to die a death of 1,000 cuts with this industry that it cannot control.”

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Photo: Protests against the proliferation of coal-seam gas fracking have swelled in size and number in recent months as farmers, ranchers and rural residents confront industry and government leaders over the alleged polluting side effects of the unconventional gas extraction process. This protest last spring targeted plans to frack in New South Wales. Credit: Courtesy of Andrya Hart

 


U.S. gas bonanza from fracking slow to spread globally

World_Shale_Basins_Map01_05-05-11

In less than a generation, the United States has soared to world leadership in extracting natural gas from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing. But as the world debates whether “fracking” is an economic boon or a budding environmental disaster, few foreign countries are following the U.S. lead.

GlobalFocusConditions unique to the United States have encouraged investment in the abundant source of low-carbon energy and boosted prospects for reducing dependence on costly and unpredictable supplies of foreign oil. Of the natural gas consumed in the United States last year, 94% came from domestic production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The availability of large quantities of shale gas should enable the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas for many years and produce more natural gas than it consumes,” the agency reports, predicting a 29% increase in output by 2035, almost all of it from shale fracking.

The rapid advance toward self-sufficiency has made the U.S. industry both a model and a cautionary tale for other countries pondering all-in development of their shale-gas reserves.

Significant deposits of natural gas trapped in coal and shale seams have been identified in Eastern and Western Europe, Canada, Australia, China, South Africa and the cone of South America. Global energy giants like Shell and Chevron are bankrolling billions in exploration, sizing up the cost-effectiveness of replicating the U.S. boom in more remote locales with little infrastructure.

Technological advances in horizontal drilling have made it feasible to tap small pockets of gas trapped in shale layers a mile or more below the surface. Contractors bore thousands of feet down through soil, rock and water layers, then drill laterally through the shale to create a horizontal well. When sand, water and chemicals are blasted into the bore holes, the force fractures the shale, releasing gas from fissures within the sedimentary rock. The gas is captured and ferried by pipeline to distribution grids or to port facilities where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas for overseas shipment.

But the process leaves behind tons of chemical-contaminated mud. There are also reports of drinking water pollution from the chemicals and methane gas that escapes into underground reservoirs. A study last year published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction” in the aquifers above the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the U.S. Northeast.  This spring, the U.S. Geological Survey reported “a remarkable increase” in the occurrence of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger that it tied to fracking operations.

This month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the Environmental Protection Agency was finding it “challenging” to inspect and enforce clean air and clean water regulations in the fast-moving fracking industry. For example, the GAO report noted, the EPA is often unable to evaluate alleged water contamination because investigators lack information about the water quality before the fracking occurred.

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Filipinos face 12 years in prison for online libel under new law

Philippines

Filipinos who libel others on Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere online could be jailed for up to 12 years under a law that went into effect Wednesday in the Philippines.

The new law against cyber-crime includes a disputed provision that imposes much steeper penalties for committing libel on the Internet than offline. It allows police to shut down websites and do some monitoring of email and online activity without a warrant.

Fears of an increasing government grip on online speech set off a firestorm this week among Filipinos, who have been dubbed some of the most avid users of social media in the world. Rights groups warn that existing libel laws are already vague enough for criticism of the government to be deemed criminal.

“The Philippines was considered a regional leader in Internet freedom,” said Sanja Kelly of the international rights group Freedom House. “This law puts it closer to more authoritarian states.” Even clicking "like" on an offending Facebook post could be construed as libel under the broadly written law, the rights group warned.

Internet freedom groups, journalists and bloggers in the Philippines blacked out their websites Wednesday in protest, calling the new law an unconstitutional trampling of free speech rights. Some took to the streets to protest. Several petitions have already been filed with the Supreme Court challenging the law.

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'Bibi's Bomb': Netanyahu uses a picture to make his point

Netanyahubomb

For weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the United States to draw a clear “red line” to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Today, Netanyahu showed them how.

Literally.

Warning the United Nations General Assembly that the world must act quickly to halt Iran, Netanyahu brandished a red marker and drew his own clear red line atop a drawing of a bomb.

By the middle of next year, Netanyahu argued, Iran could have enough enriched uranium to make a weapon within “a few months, possibly a few weeks.” His red line landed just below the “final stage” on the diagram.

The gambit grabbed as much attention as his dire message: The image of Netanyahu drawing that “red line” was irresistible to the media after photo after dull photo of suited diplomats at the U.N. If cartoonish, it was unforgettable. If simplistic, it was easily grasped. Some saw it as a brilliant stroke of political stagecraft.

“Bibi's use of that chart was one of the most effective, gripping uses of a chart I've ever seen. Is the world listening??” former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted.

In a rarity for the sober world of international diplomacy, “Bibi’s bomb” went viral, as Internet users competed to get in the best quips.

But illustrating the tense and serious issue with a cartoon fell flat with others watching the speech. Some said that the act made Netanyahu himself look cartoonish, an image that didn’t spell out the threat so much as conjure up animated villains.

“It is precisely because Iran's nuclear program is such a threat to Israel that turning to cartoon bombs to explain the issue is a lousy idea,” tweeted Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent with the Atlantic.

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Google executive detained in Brazil for YouTube videos

Google executive Fabio Jose Silva Coelho

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- The head of operations for Google in Brazil has been arrested after the site declined to remove two videos that criticized a local candidate, federal police said.

Fabio Jose Silva Coelho was to be released from custody in Sao Paulo immediately after signing a pledge to face the charges in court. He faces up to a year in jail if convicted.

Google had no immediate official comment on the arrest but had said it was appealing the “court’s decision to remove a video from YouTube because, as a platform, we are not responsible for the content uploaded to our site."

Brazilian politicians widely pride themselves on the country's freedom of expression, and the Web is full of critical content. But there are laws that prohibit “slander, insults or defamation” of candidates during electoral season. The country votes in municipal polling Oct. 7.

In this case, two videos accuse Alcides Bernal, who is running for mayor of Campo Grande, of “instigating abortion, drunkenness, harming a minor physically, illegally enriching himself” and “contempt and prejudice against the poor,” according to the decision issued by a court in the sparsely populated southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

“We don’t want anything bad to happen to Google’s director,” Bernal told a local newspaper. “What we can’t allow is people with bad intentions, acting criminally, to use Google and YouTube to wage defamatory campaigns against people ... asking the people for votes.”

Last week, a similar order was issued for the arrest of Edmundo Luiz Pinto Balthazar, another Google executive, but a higher court overturned it, saying Balthazar couldn’t be held responsible for the contents of YouTube.

The most recent order was carried out Wednesday afternoon.

Courts have also backed a request by the National Union of Islamic Entities to force Google to remove the infamous “Innocence of Muslims” video, which sparked protests around the world. Google said Wednesday that it has not received any formal order in that case.

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-- Vincent Bevins in Sao Paulo and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Google executive Fabio Jose Silva Coelho, seen in a file photo, was detained by federal police Wednesday. Credit: Carol Carquejeiro / Agencia O Globo


Iranians shut out of 'World of Warcraft'; U.S. rules cited

Worldofwarcraft

TEHRAN -- Iranians have scaled back as their economy is squeezed by Western sanctions, scrimping on meat and cutting down on small luxuries.

But now those pressures have intruded on a world that once seemed safe from geopolitical wrangling:  an online fantasy realm of goblins, dragons and warlocks enjoyed by more than 9 million paying subscribers around the world.

Sanctions by the United States, it seems, have hit "World of Warcraft."

Iranian gamers took to the "World of Warcraft" message board this week, complaining that they had been shut out of the online game. “Well, as if life of an Iranian couldn't get worse, the Battle.net became completely inaccessible as of today,” one "World of Warcraft" fan wrote in frustration.

Another lamented, “Well we had a good run, Goodbye cruel world ...”

Some speculated that the Iranian government must have shut them down, concerned that the game glorified mythology and violence. But a gaming company employee replied this week that U.S. sanctions were to blame for Iranians getting booted after paying for the game.

Blizzard Entertainment, the U.S. company behind the popular game, “tightened up its procedures to ensure compliance with these laws, and players connecting from the affected nations are restricted from access,” one of its employees explained in an online message to gamers.

The same rules stopped Blizzard from offering refunds, the employee wrote. “We apologize for any inconvenience this causes and will happily lift these restrictions as soon as U.S. law allows.”

The U.S. Treasury Department said it hadn't asked Blizzard to block the game and referred questions about the decision to the company. It said that Blizzard could seek government permission to get Iranians back into online warfare.

“Clearly the focus of our sanctions is not on video games,” U.S. Treasury spokesman John Sullivan said. “We would consider a license request from Blizzard Entertainment should they choose to apply for one.”

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Ecuador expected to decide fate of WikiLeaks' Assange

Assange

Ecuador is slated to announce Thursday morning whether Julian Assange, the founder of the secret-spilling WikiLeaks website, will be granted asylum after holing up in its embassy.

The decision is expected to be a major turn in the winding legal and political saga of Assange, a provocative figure whose website has infuriated governments by airing official secrets and has won fervent fans among Internet activists who have rallied behind his cause.

Assange first turned up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in June, shortly after the British Supreme Court ruled he could be extradited to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault. The complaints were lodged by two women who claimed Assange had abused them during a Swedish lecture tour.

Assange denies the allegations and has claimed that he is being politically persecuted so he can be sent to the United States, which was angered by the release of secret Pentagon documents and a vast trove of State Department cables. In his bid for asylum, Assange argued that he could face the death penalty for "political crimes" in the U.S., where he claims he has been secretly indicted.

The idea of heading to Ecuador was not new: An Ecuadorean deputy foreign minister had flirted with the idea of giving Assange residency in Ecuador two years ago to ensure he could continue his work.  At the time, President Rafael Correa said he had not approved the offer.

Assange later interviewed President Correa for a television show while under house arrest in Britain. Their rapport was evident during the interview. The leftist president denounced the U.S. and praised WikiLeaks for exposing its actions; Assange chuckled at his jokes.

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Stalinist tactics on Russian dissent could stumble in Internet era

Russia punk rock trio

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny faces charges of embezzlement, accusations of inciting violence in the Caucasus and the threat of having his law license revoked. A female punk rock trio awaits sentencing for appealing to the Virgin Mary to throw President Vladimir Putin out of office. And Putin's allies in parliament recently passed laws punishing demonstrators and branding civil rights groups with overseas supporters "foreign agents."

GlobalFocusThe crackdown on dissent in recent weeks has Kremlin watchers making comparisons with Josef Stalin's paranoia-driven repressions in the early Soviet era for their power to scare opponents into silent submission.

But the politics of fear may not work so reliably, Russia analysts say, in the age of the Internet and toppled authoritarian regimes across the Middle East. And, the experts say, Putin and his hierarchy may be underestimating the potential for global cultural stars and social media to incite a backlash against their efforts to stifle dissent.

The three feminist rockers fell afoul of Putin's regime when they belted out a "punk prayer" at a Moscow cathedral in February that ended with a heavenly appeal to "throw out Putin." They were charged with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred, prosecuted in what many called a show trial this week and are awaiting an Aug. 17 verdict widely expected to send them to prison for at least three years.

Superstar Madonna, in Russia for a concert tour, showed her solidarity with the jailed rockers by sporting their signature black ski mask at a performance Tuesday and scrawling the group's name across her bare back. Sting, Yoko Ono, Pete Townsend of the Who and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant also have appealed for the trio's release in a rising outcry against free-speech infringements.

The opposition in Russia may look weak now, but "there's a potential spark out there," said Paul Gregory, a Russian scholar at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"Putin clearly watched with some trepidation as the 'Arab Spring' unfolded," Gregory said of the swift spread of uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria last year. Just imagine, he said, if something were to happen to one of the twentysomething rockers while in prison, like a suspicious death or suicide.

"I don't want to suggest something like this, but it's the kind of thing that could bring millions of people out on the streets," he said. "The people who can help, believe it or not, are those in the artistic community, like Madonna. The Kremlin is scared to death of her. These artists can't be written off as foreign agents, and they speak to millions and millions of Russians."

Putin's strategy throughout his 12 years in high office has been to cast challenges to his authority as bankrolled by foreign enemies, and it has been successful in portraying him as a strong leader and defender of Russian sovereignty in the provinces, said Andrew Weiss, director of the Rand Center for Russia and Eurasia and a former National Security Council official during the Clinton administration.

But blaming foreigners for the 100,000-strong protest in Moscow after December's tainted parliamentary elections doesn't play as well with the educated, technology-savvy populations of Russia's biggest cities, Weiss said.

The unprecedented eruption of anti-Putin protesters shocked the Kremlin and spurred its Security Council chief, former KGB official Nikolai Patrushev, to call for "reasonable regulation" of the Internet and social media to prevent their use by "criminals and terrorist groups."

"There may be people in the Russian establishment who want to block Facebook and Twitter, but I doubt they could pull it off," Weiss said. He sees a leadership that is out of touch with the wired generation of Russians with no memory of the Soviet era, when the communist government could control movement and access to information.

Laws that criminalize public assembly and the defamation of officials are acceptable to Russian peasants and workers in the provincial rust belt cities, he said. But it remains to be seen how long tactics that were refined decades ago will succeed in stifling dissent, Weiss said.

Navalny, the 36-year-old lawyer whose disjointed political alliance failed to get much traction against Putin's United Russia last year, has reacted to the criminal charges and moves to undermine his credibility with regular postings on the blog of his nonprofit Endowment for Fighting Corruption. The posts have included reports of his discovery this week of listening devices embedded throughout his Moscow apartment.

"They're using a bazooka to shoot at a mouse," Weiss said of the Kremlin's excessive moves against the opposition. "The big question is how effective these steps will be in tamping down what Putin and his top officials should be worried about."

Like the Internet, and Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo: Russian jail matrons escort punk group members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, top, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina into a Moscow court where their trial concluded Wednesday. Credit: Sergei Chirikov / European Pressphoto Agency


General warns of dramatic increase in cyber-attacks on U.S. firms

Cyber forum
ASPEN, Colo.  -- Computer  intrusions by hackers, criminals and nations against U.S. infrastructure increased seventeenfold from 2009 to 2011, the nation’s chief cyber defender says, and it’s only a matter of time before such an attack causes physical damage.

Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads  the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, revealed the statistics in a rare public interview Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum, a gathering of national security officials. He called for passage of legislation being debated by the Senate that would set up a voluntary system for companies to shore up their computer defenses.

The NSA eavesdrops on communications around the world, and it also monitors cyber-attacks. U.S. Cyber Command is responsible for offensive cyber operations.

Alexander did not say how many attacks happen each year against critical infrastructure, such as electrical, water, chemical and nuclear plants. Such intrusions are typically designed  to probe defenses and lay the groundwork for a destructive attack.  Many plants and factories are run by networked industrial control systems, so an attacker who seizes control of such a system could wreak havoc.

Echoing remarks he has made before, Alexander said the U.S. lacks sufficient defenses against cyber-attacks. On a scale of 1 to 10, he said, American preparedness for a large-scale cyber-attack is “around a 3.”

He said he was particularly worried about attacks that could shut down parts of the electrical grid or compromise public water systems.

“Destructive cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure are coming,” Alexander said.

Alexander said the military had yet to work out rules of engagement for responding to cyber-attacks, and he pointed out that neither of his agencies have the authority to defend against a cyber-attack on a private company, even if that company owns crucial infrastructure.  The pending bill would fix that, he said.

Some business groups oppose the bill as intrusive, and some civil liberties groups say it compromises privacy.

Alexander pointedly refused to comment on Stuxnet, a cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities that has been reported to have been the work of the U.S. and Israeli intelligence.  He also pushed back against the notion that the uptick in attacks on the U.S. is related to Stuxnet, which was first discovered in June 2010.

Alexander repeated his view that computer-based espionage against the industrialized world amounted to “the biggest transfer of wealth in history” because “adversaries have gone into our companies and taken intellectual property.”

He cited one estimate by the security firm McAfee that the losses from such spying add up to a trillion dollars. But, he said, "we don’t know. And which is more alarming:  that it’s really large, or we don’t even know how large it is? … What other countries are doing are stealing the next generation of [our] capabilities.”

Alexander didn’t name the countries, but China and Russia have  been cited by government officials as the biggest culprits, a charge they deny.

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Photo: NBC correspondent Pete Williams, left, interviews Gen. Keith Alexander  on  on cyber-security. Credit: Aspen Daily News 


Mexico signs anti-piracy treaty, setting up battle with activists

Mexico piracy acta file photo

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.

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Photo: A vendor shows pirated DVDs on a sidewalk in central Mexico City in 2006. Credit: Sarah Meghan Lee / For The Times


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