THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION (EC) is set to ask the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to rule on the legality of the draconian Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), as opposition to the treaty continues to mount.
Commissioner Karel De Gucth said that he and 22 other commissioners want to clarify whether ACTA is compatible with fundamental European rights.
"We are planning to ask Europe's highest court to assess whether ACTA is incompatible, in any way, with the EU's fundamental rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and information or data protection and the right to property in case of intellectual property," he said.
ACTA has been the subject of intense scrutiny and protests for several weeks after 22 European nations signed the agreement, with several now backing out of the deal, admitting they had not fully understood the implications of the treaty.
De Gucth said that while the EC has already given its backing to the treaty and authorised member states to sign the document, it is important it be given legal scrutiny.
"The EC has a responsibility to provide our parliamentary representatives and the public at large with the most detailed and accurate information available," he said.
"So, a referral will allow for Europe's top court to independently clarify the legality of this agreement."
Justice commissioner Viviane Reding also gave her backing to the referral of ACTA to the ECJ.
"Copyright protection can never be a justification for eliminating freedom of expression or freedom of information. That is why for me, blocking the internet is never an option," she said.
However, despite referring the document to the ECJ, De Gucth defended ACTA, claiming it would not lead to website blocking or changes in how services can operate, regardless of what the text states.
"ACTA will change nothing about how we use the internet and social websites today - since it does not introduce any new rules. ACTA only helps to enforce what is already law today," he claimed.
"ACTA will not censor websites or shut them down; ACTA will not hinder freedom of the internet or freedom of speech. Let's cut through this fog of uncertainty and put ACTA in the spotlight of our highest independent judicial authority: the European Court of Justice."
The document is set to be discussed in the European Parliament for the first time on 1 March, with MEPs still able to veto the treaty.
Peter Bradwell of the Open Rights Group speculated that the announcement is a smokescreen designed to hide the fact that the European Commission is planning to approve ACTA.
"The European Commission has a vested interest in seeing ACTA pass. They get to choose the question asked of the Court. They show every sign of making sure they get the answers they want to try to give ACTA a fig leaf of legitimacy. And this is also clearly an attempt by the Commission to pause the ratification process in the hope that protests lose their heat," he said.
"If the Commission expects these protests about clumsy and dangerous internet policies to fade away, they are very much mistaken. Citizens across Europe have found their voice." µ