With twenty-two EU states signed up to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the stakes for digital freedom have never been higher, argues Marienna Pope-Weidemann

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) will effectively muzzle the internet as a voice for those with any message capital may be reluctant to invest in. By making internet service providers responsible for the actions of their users, it will set up an Orwellian system for surveillance of data exchange all over the world. More than that, its criminalisation of copyright infringement will inhibit the web as a means of free communication, information sharing and collective organisation. The wording of the act has been widely criticised as deliberately subjective. For Loz Kaye of the UK Pirate Party, this opens the floodgates on censorship and abuse of power ‘on an industrial scale.’

Hundreds gathered outside the British Music House in Central London on Saturday afternoon to protest the UK’s signing of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). With twenty-two EU states having signed and its immanent ratification looming large in the minds of the protesters, the stakes it seemed had never been higher for digital freedom.
By 2pm the protest, organised by the Open Rights Group and UK Pirate Party, consisted of around fifty protesters huddled in the cold wind, with a modest police presence ensuring that any democratic demonstrations of disgust were kept neatly behind the metal railings. An air of grim determination pervaded the crowd until, just a little late from Amnesty’s Trafalgar Square protest, the masked Anonymous contingent appeared with characteristic stealth and to cheers from the crowd, which soon tripled in size.

Advocates of the act have tried to veil the profiteering, corporate agenda by portraying ACTA as a defence of the creativity and ingenuity of artists. Kaye, a composer himself, disagrees:

‘I am fed up to my back teeth of being told by these people that things like ACTA are in my interest. It’s the entertainment industry – it’s in its own narrow, fat cat self-interest… [ACTA] paves the way for automated blocking; for filtering of communications and deletion of content. You cannot convince me that this is not a threat to freedom of speech… innocent people are already being taken as collateral in big entertainment’s war on the so-called “pirates”.’

Vocal critics and protesters alike all spoke of a clear division between corporate interests on one hand, and the demands of both consumers and artists on the other. While existing monopolies will be further entrenched, it will be the alternative, grassroots media that pays the price. ‘Anyone can be kicked off the internet if this thing goes through,’ warns veteran internet-activist Martin Keegan. ‘[But it will be] the weak person, the unpopular person. Not Joe Average, Joe Marginal… ACTA has turned into a subversion of democracy, and assault on freedom of speech.’

The sense that a double standard is at work here is only reinforced by ACTA’s somewhat selective notion of what ‘piracy’ means. While file sharing – which may one day be the only means of free education left in this country – is cracked down on, ACTA and its predecessors work to protect the plundering rights of what Vandana Shiva has dubbed ‘the biopirates’: big agribusiness multinationals like Monsanto, who move into a country and slap patents on unique seed varieties painstakingly developed through generations of indigenous experimentation. They are then sold back to the communities that developed them, genetically modified to require additional inputs (like machinery and pesticides) which, conveniently, those same corporations possess the exclusive rights to sell.

The dynamics of debt and dependency created by this process have contributed directly to ‘the GM genocide’ in India and other agricultural economies, with hundreds of thousands of farmers, without any hope of climbing back out of debt, taking their own lives. For Heeseob Nab of the Korean pressure group IP Left, ‘ACTA is just another name for ‘kicking away the ladder’ with which the industrialised nations climbed to the top.’ He recalls that in 1790, the US Congress banned the importation of patent, despite pressure from the British, who were keen to avoid American competition through imitation of British technologies.

It was the WTO that first bundled artistic and industrial copyrights under the umbrella of ‘intellectual property rights’ and expanded their scope exponentially. This allowed them to restrict public access and shore up corporate monopolies, not only in the arts and manufacturing industries, but at the level of the most basic building blocks for life: the food we grow. Enshrined in article 27 of the TRIPS Agreement, this policy has been scheduled for review since 1999 following a wave of governmental criticism and popular protest in the developing world. The review never came; instead we have ACTA. It is precisely because the scope for abuse in the wording of this agreement is so great that Doctors Without Borders have already warned it will also hinder the distribution of life-saving generic drugs in the developing world and amount to ‘a disaster for human rights.’

ACTA’s American counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), has been stunned for the moment by a storm of protest. 4.5 million people signed Google’s anti-censorship petition and online protests or blackouts were undertaken by over 14 million Americans and 100,000 websites, notably Wikipedia, Google, and Mozilla. That stopping SOPA took the largest online protest in history, and an assault on the CIA itself by Anonymous, illustrates the potency of the vested interests at work here.

Like their predecessors, ACTA and SOPA were negotiated in secret. It was (again) thanks only to Wikileaks that the public was alerted by the release of a draft memorandum in May 2008, prompting over a hundred organisations worldwide to demand the negotiations be made public. But their reluctance to engage in inclusive discussion should come as no surprise. Its advocates in agribusiness envisage a world in which every blade of grass, drop of water and micro-organism is owned and controlled by profit-driven monopolies. In that sense it’s just another acronym for ‘austerity’. Its advocates in the media have shown a despicable willingness to restrict the immense potential of the internet for education, artistic collaboration and democratic participation, simply to maintain the profit-margins on their outdated business model.

Though twenty-two EU states (including the UK) have signed ACTA, it has yet to be ratified by the European Parliament. With Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and most famously Poland now weakening in the face of huge popular protest, the time to pressure the ConDem Coalition is absolutely and urgently now. Hundreds gathered at a protest on Saturday organised by the Open Rights Group and UK Pirate Party, but this is just the beginning. ACTA is legislation by and for the 1%. If it passes, the internet – and counterfire.org – will never look the same again.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.