The Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has been secretly negotiated by the European Union, the US and other leading countries since 2007 and is due to be agreed in 2010.
Some of the documents leaked from the negotiations contain controversial proposals for disconnecting illegal downloaders from the internet. The European Commission (EC) is expected to respond to the plans by 17 December.
Digital rights groups, trade unions and other non-governmental organisations have signed a petition arguing that the process should be made transparent because the leaked proposals affect the freedoms and privacy of European citizens. However, the EU negotiators maintain that it is common practice to withhold trade agreements from the wider public and necessary in order for the EU to remain a competitive global player.
V3.co.uk discussed ACTA with a EU commission official involved in the negotiations and questioned him on the secrecy of the agreements.
V3.co.uk: Digital rights organisations are arguing ACTA negotiating documents should be made public because of the nature of what is being discussed. The leaked documents show ACTA will affect internet freedoms and criminal legislation and petitioners believe such issues need to be negotiated in public. What is your response?
EC spokesperson: It is general practice for trade documents to remain confidential for a certain amount of time. However, although this is how we started the negotiations, it does not mean we can’t change it. We do understand the concerns of stakeholders.
We are acting within the limits of EU legislation. I don’t understand how they [the organisations campaigning for ACTA discussions to be made public] think we can change the world with what we are proposing. It is agreed that we have a mandate to act on behalf of the EU and that mandate was given to us by the EU Council.
Under the negotiating guidelines, the Council gives us the authority to negotiate on behalf of the EU and of course the Council holds representatives from all the member states.
Would it make sense to publish the trade documents if doing so would help to assuage opposition to ACTA?
We can’t make the mandate public because it defines the limits of where the EU is prepared to go with the agreement. If it is made public and other countries gained access to it they would know how far we will go or not go with the negotiations. This could make their tasks a lot easier. It’s like if you are buying a used car and you already know how low the seller will go with the price.
Because of the nature of what is being discussed, should certain issues be made more transparent?
We have been discussing how to increase the transparency of the document. We have also discussed many of the issues with some of the stakeholders openly, such as ISPs and intellectual property holders. We have been to the European Parliament several times to discuss the issues and talked to Congress about ACTA. What we have not done so far is released the negotiating documents.
Documents that have been leaked by the EU contain controversial proposals for disconnecting illegal downloader’s from the internet. Any operator storing or transmitting copyrighted content will be held liable for intellectual property infringement, according to plans submitted by the US.
But these plans conflict with the Telecoms Reform Package the EU passed last month, determining that Member States cannot restrict internet access without involving the courts. If the EU agrees to the US plans put forward as part of ACTA, will Brussels have to change the telecoms rules again?
What’s important is that the EU will respect the legislation that has already been passed. They have that obligation. And if there were to be any changes [to the legislation], they only would have to go through the whole EU due process procedure.
So a lot of the worries held by ISPs and digital rights organisations that trade agreements take precedence over EU legislation are unfounded?
The US is hardly likely to change their domestic law with an international agreement. At the moment the US requires judicial involvement to cut someone off from the internet. It is difficult to defend ourselves without showing the document.
Do you believe there is any way the EU will bow to the requests being made by firms and organisations and go public?
In the past we have talked about making the document public. In the fourth meeting held to discuss ACTA, we discussed releasing the documents before the agreement is confirmed. I hope that next year the agreement will be concluded and I think the documents will be released before the agreement is passed.
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