THE INTERNET will face the biggest challenge in its history when the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is signed.
The ACTA is a secret treaty and like many documents signed behind closed doors it will only be ratified in that way because there is something deeply flawed with it.
Basically it is a piece of paper in which the world's governments will sign over power to the music and film industry cartels. Of course they don't say that. They talk about trade protection of industry and terms like that, but it will amount to the same thing.
Ever since the Internet started to become a threat to the big content producers, the entertainment industry has been battering its head against American laws and other countries' laws as well. Their problem is that there are too many protections for individuals in many countries' constitutions. Even if tame politicians passed laws that were in favour of what Big Content wanted, there would be some constitutional watchdog that would prevent it from happening. This is what happened in France.
A trade agreement is a way of getting around that. Trade agreements trump countries' local laws. Take for example when the Born Again Christians were in power in the US and decided that Internet gambling was evil, so they banned it. The World Trade Organisation told the US that its action blocked trade with Antigua, which depends on online gambling.
If a trade agreement is accepted by the world then it will trump any local laws.
Politicians have backed the trade agreement idea. They have always had a cosy relationship with the Big Content industries. It goes back to the days when newspaper owners advised readers about which party to vote for in the next election.
The content industries themselves have every reason to want to police the Internet. If they are policing the status quo then they will not have to carry out any much needed reforms of their industries or devise any new business models for their companies to adapt to the Internet.
The fact that politicians want to maintain this cosy relationship is flagged by the readiness of how far they will bend over to make these industries comfortable. Ideally they want the world to adopt the American model for the enforcement of copyright law, which is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
The DMCA does have some good things in it, but in the US it is balanced by the US Constitution which protects free speech. If something like the DMCA was adopted in Blighty, which does not, it could be used by a business to shut down any discussion of its operations by the media. The only reason this did not happen in the US was because the media can claim privileges under the US Constitution.
ACTA requires countries to come up with tougher copyright laws, but there is no indication that such laws are required. The content industries have failed to come up with any proof that they do not have enough powers under law to stop copyright infringement. They demand that ISPs act as copyright cops, something that many do not have the ability to do effectively. This means that a private company can use another private company to enforce a law without any reference to the legal system. Constitutionally this would be a nightmare in any sane society. But again since it is a trade agreement the government has to accept it somehow. Otherwise it would risk international punishment under the terms of the trade treaty.
It is not surprising then that the treaty has had to remain secret as the only chance the world has of stopping it is before it is signed.
The treaty was delivered a blow when the EU Parliament refused to allow it to go ahead. Most of the MEP's anger was because the EC negotiators ignored the elected parliament when they pressed for it. It would have been presented to the EU as a done deal. However the EU Parliament has made sure that it will have some involvement with the treaty or it will not be legally binding. This could prevent it being adopted in the EU. Unless of course European politicians also decide that they would rather not face down the big content cartels. µ