26th Jan 2020


Right to privacy at risk in anti-piracy talks

  • The talks could end in customs officials checking the contents of laptops (Photo: European Commission)

Since last spring,‭ ‬The European Union,‭ ‬the United States,‭ ‬Canada,‭ ‬Switzerland and Japan have been‭ negotiating a new anti-online piracy treaty‭ ‬-‭ ‬the so called ACTA treaty. The process is characterised by extreme secrecy,‭ ‬and even though the negotiations could result in new,‭ harsh‬ file-sharing laws in member states it's impossible for the media and for the public to participate in the discussion.‭

Protests from organizations and IT businesses have been ignored by the EU.‭ ‬Any member state that believes in openness should protest and demand that the European Commission makes public which new anti-file-sharing laws they are pushing for with a European mandate.

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ACTA negotiations are founded on a belief that stronger enforcement of intellectual property rights would benefit the economy.‭ ‬This presumption‭ ‬-‭ widespread ‬in the political establishment‭ ‬-‭ ‬is highly controversial.‭ ‬Studies from Harvard and from The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm conclude that there is no clear connection between on-line piracy and the sales of copyrighted works.‭ ‬

The fair-use industry‭ ‬-‭ ‬businesses taking advantage of the fair-use exemptions from the copyright law as Google does when indexing the web‭ ‬-‭ ‬contributes more to the economy than do copyright-dependent industries.‭ ACTA negotiators, however,‭ ‬working closely with the copyright industry,‭ ‬are not likely to take such facts into account.

Secret information believed to have leaked from the ACTA negotiations has caused speculation about the purpose of the ACTA initiative.‭ ‬Canadian newspapers reported that Internet Service Providers may be forced to give up information about their customers,‭ ‬which would compromise internet users‭' ‬privacy protection.‭ ‬The treaty could also make a criminal out of anyone who facilitates copyright infringments,‭ ‬for instance by developing effective copying tools.‭ ‬

Such regulations would inhibit technical innovation in Europe and strike a hard blow against the IT sector.‭ ‬Most eye-popping are press reports claiming that customs officials could get the authority to search travelers‭' ‬mp3‭ -players and laptop computers to identify unlawfully copied material.‭ ‬If this is correct,‭ ‬it is yet another example of how the political elite's campaign against file sharing is resulting in an increasingly intrusive control state.

Which fears are unfounded and which fears are to be taken seriously we don't know,‭ ‬as a result of the secrecy surrounding the talks.‭ ‬Neither the public nor elected representatives know what government officials and lobbyists will agree on behind closed doors. Unfortunately, some elected representatives don't even want to scrutinise the treaty. As recently as last week, the European Parliament rejected a motion to demand relevant information from the European Commission.

The public being prevented from examining an agreement that could change our law is inconsistent with the openness that we are used to in the legislative process.‭ ‬From a democratic perspective,‭ ‬the secret ACTA negotiations are unacceptable.‭ ‬EU member states are represented by the commission,‭ ‬which got this mandate to negotiate from the Agriculture and Fisheries Council - a meeting of EU agriculture ministers.‭ ‬

The decision in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council was taken without debate,‭ ‬and the ministers most likely had no idea what they were deciding.‭ ‬The positions of the member states were co-ordinated in the so-called‭ ‬Article 133‭ Committee‬.‭ ‬This committee too is sheltered from public scrutiny.‭ ‬Hence,‭ ‬citizens don't know their own government's position on ACTA and have no one to hold accountable.‭

In an open IT society the situation raises several concerns.‭ ‬First of all,‭ ‬ACTA could be another step in the direction of more government control of citizens.‭ ‬Secondly,‭ ‬the behind-closed-doors process puts normal democratic rules out of play.‭ ‬Member states that value openness must make clear to the EU establishment that they don't accept what is now happening,‭ ‬and that they will not join an international convention that is established on the current terms.

The author is a representative of the Moderate Party in the Swedish Parliament


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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