The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was dealt a major blow on April 12 when MEP David Martin, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the agreement and member of the Committee responsible for delivering the recommendation [doc] to European Parliament to adopt or reject the agreement, announced that he would be recommending a “no” vote. While the prospects of the European Parliament ratifying the agreement seems to have fortunately lessened, it does not mean that it’s a fait accompli that the European Parliament will reject ACTA. As we’ve noted before, ACTA is a plurilateral agreement designed to broaden and extend existing intellectual property enforcement laws to the Internet. It was negotiated in secret by a handful of countries, in a process that intentionally bypassed the checks and balances of existing international IP norm-setting bodies without any meaningful input from national parliaments, policymakers, or their citizens. In our second post on the ACTA State of Play, we’ll look at what’s happening in Europe and why we should all be keeping a close eye on what’s happening in Brussels. (For those interested in US developments, please see our previous post here).
While the EU and 22 of its 27 member states signed ACTA in January, the European Parliament must vote to adopt it for it to become part of European Union law. A complex process is underway involving five European Parliamentary committees. The first step involves four committees: the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), the Legal Affairs Committee (JURI), and the Development Committee (DEVE). Each must each review ACTA according to their Committee’s particular subject matter expertise, and deliver an opinion to the fifth and lead Committee, the International Trade Committee (INTA).
The INTA Committee plays the key role of recommending ACTA’s adoption or rejection to European Parliament. While INTA’s opinion is highly influential, it is not binding. The final step in the ratification process is a plenary vote of the Members of European Parliament. MEPs must decide whether to adopt or reject ACTA in its entirety; no amendments are allowed. The vote is currently scheduled for early July, but it may occur later. Here are two great infographics from the European Parliament and from French organizations La Quadrature du Net and Owni.eu which illustrate the whole process.
Apart from this process at the EU level, individual EU member states must decide whether or not to ratify ACTA. This is because the agreement requires countries to put in place broader criminal sanctions for those who infringe IP, and for those who aid and abet them. EU law is not harmonized in relation to criminal penalties for IP infringement. Criminal laws are within the exclusive legislative power of the individual EU member states and so they must ratify ACTA for those provisions to be given effect. Five member states have now suspended ratification of ACTA (Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands and Bulgaria) and Germany has said that it will wait to see how the European Parliament votes before deciding to ratify.
There are many moving pieces in this puzzle and they each exert different levels of influence on the European Parliament’s vote. The European Commission referred ACTA to the European Court of Justice, the highest court in Europe, on February 22 for an opinion on its compliance with EU law. The European Parliament’s INTA Committee, at the instigation of MEP David Martin, the current Rapporteur of ACTA within the European Parliament, considered but rejected its own referral of ACTA to the European Court of Justice in March. If this had gone ahead, it would have delayed the European Parliament’s plenary vote beyond July. The European Data Protection Supervisor issued an opinion [pdf] on the European Parliament’s proposed accession to ACTA on April 24 that obliquely criticized ACTA by noting that it permits measures for indiscriminate monitoring of communications that would be disproportionate for small scale infringements. Specifically, it includes voluntary cooperative enforcement measures that would permit ISPs to process personal data beyond what is permitted under EU law, and lacks the necessary limitations and safeguards to protect EU citizens’ personal data under EU law.
On April 12, the Rapporteur of ACTA within the European Parliament, MEP David Martin of the INTA Committee, announced that he would be recommending that the European Parliament vote no on ACTA, but suggested that the Commission could negotiate an alternative proposal. His recommendation concluded that:
Your rapporteur therefore recommends that the European Parliament declines to give consent to ACTA. In doing so, it is important to note that increased IP rights protection for European producers trading in the global marketplace is of high importance. Following the expected revision of relevant EU directives, your rapporteur hopes the European Commission will therefore come forward with new proposals for protecting IP.
While this should indeed be seen as a major blow to the prospects of a speedy ratification by the European Parliament and a rebuke to the European Commission which took the lead in negotiating ACTA for the EU, it does not mean that ACTA is dead in the EU.
Last week, several of the four committees involved in the first step of the process were scheduled to publish their opinions and deliver them to the INTA committee. These opinions are likely to be heavily influenced by the appointed Rapporteur for each committee. They are reportedly equally divided. Two of the four Rapporteurs oppose ACTA and two are strong supporters. EDRi has posted a draft opinion of the influential Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) rapporteur, MEP Marielle Gallo, who is a strong ACTA supporter. She had previously been proposing a fast vote on her draft opinion within JURI, but on April 26, she pushed instead for JURI to postpone its vote on the opinion. This seems like a further delaying tactic by ACTA supporters to slow down the process within the European Parliament until they’ve got the numbers for a yes vote while the fierce lobbying campaign continues apace in Brussels.
Everything comes down to how MEPs vote in the Parliamentary plenary vote. MEPs in European Parliament are members of political parties, and analysts in Europe are now trying to tabulate how the political party groups will vote on ACTA. As Joe McNamee, the Brussels-based Advocacy Co-ordinator for European Digital Rights noted in an insightful piece last week, the numbers look closer than you might think: 52.5% of the Parliament opposed to ACTA, to 47.5% in favor, if you extrapolate from the views of the Rapporteurs of the four committees involved in the first ratification step:
To put it in another way, if just 20 MEPs have their minds changed as a result of the massive lobbying campaign currently underway and organised by the European Commission and big business interests, then ACTA will be adopted. The situation becomes even more precarious when we consider that it often happens that more than 5% of MEPs do not vote (either absent or abstaining) meaning that the chances of the current tiny majority being sufficient are more a matter of luck than anything else.
We are at a stage where every single vote in the European Parliament is of huge value. If the pro-ACTA message of the rapporteurs in the Legal Affairs and (shockingly) the Development Committee prevail, this will create a new momentum and will be used to “prove” that ACTA is a legitimate proposal.
Assuming that the anti-democratic elements in the European Parliament will not be allowed to have their way, there are two possible outcomes. The first is the anti-ACTA campaign will be anesthetised by complacency – assuming victory, citizens will stop contacting Parliamentarians, will not take part in demonstrations and will reassure MEPs that our attention span is so short that we can be ignored on ACTA, that we can be ignored on the upcoming IPRED Directive, that we can be ignored on the upcoming Data Retention Directive. And we reassure our opponents that no future democratic movement will be able to sustain a campaign as long as needed. We lose. Europe loses.
Or we do our duty for European democracy and maintain our pressure right up until the vote. And then we win. And Europe wins.
The future of ACTA as an international agreement will be decided in Europe. While recent media reports have led many people to conclude that ACTA is dead, this is unfortunately not true. Worse, it’s quite a dangerous misconception to have rebounding through the zeitgeist at a time when we need every possible vote in the European Parliament for ACTA to be rejected in July. Citizens in Europe and elsewhere must now clearly and loudly voice our concerns about this agreement to our elected representatives to counter-balance the content industry lobbyists that are hard at work in Brussels shoring-up support for ACTA. Now is the time to make your views heard. If you’re in the EU, contact your MEPs and urge them to vote no on ACTA.
Also, please visit Electronic Frontier Foundation to support Internet privacy and freedom.