Thursday, November 05, 2009

ACTA: what lurks in the shadows?

Over the last two years, a number of countries and multi-national blocs have been negotiating a new treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The UK Intellectual Property Office, for example, claim that:

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) seeks to coordinate international cooperation on IPR enforcement practices, to tackle effectively counterfeit and pirated goods.

Whether or not you feel that the premises on which the proposed treaty is founded are benign (the Pirate Party UK, of which I am a member, opposes it in principle), the most disturbing thing about this treaty is the veil of total secrecy behind which all of the negotiations and details of the proposed treaty provisions have been concealed. (Recall that, in most countries, international treaties which have been ratified by the government have the force of law).

Indeed, the public was not even aware of what, exactly, the proposed agreement would cover until a discussion paper was leaked in May 2008.

On the EU side, the negotiations are being carried out by the European Commission, which has routinely denied or stalled all attempts to give transparency to the process. They have even ignored repeated demands from the European Parliament for drafts and documentation of the process. In December 2008, for example, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which:

Calls on the Commission and the Member States to negotiate ACTA under conditions of the utmost transparency towards EU citizens, especially with regard to the definitions of the terms "counterfeiting" and "piracy" and the criminal sanction measures foreseen; takes the view that the social impact of the agreement as well as the impact on civil liberties must be assessed; supports the establishment of a task force to examine the implementation of the agreement, by promoting this subject in dialogue between the European Union and third countries and as part of cooperation measures with those countries.

The Commission failed to comply. Several months later, in March 2009, the European Parliament and Council adopted new regulations on transparency in government, and as part of this they specifically singled out the ACTA negotiations as an area in which transparency was sorely needed.

In accordance with Article 255(1) of the EC Treaty, the Commission should immediately make all documents related to the ongoing international negotiations on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) publicly available.

Nevertheless, these documents are still not available. Although there are judicial procedures by which the Parliament can compel the Commission to act, these take a long time, long enough that the details of ACTA might not be made available until the negotiations are concluded and the treaty's provisions presented as a fait accompli.

It's therefore been recommended that citizens of EU countries pressure our individual governments to make the process more transparent. For example, I have recently filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for details of the UK's part in the ACTA negotiations and, specifically, for draft documents, and I'll be writing to my MP later today to ask him whether he feels that such secrecy in negotiations of a trade treaty is really in the public interest.

Watch this space.

Update: I've made additional FOI requests of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Update 2: BIS say that I should contact UKIPO. How fortunate that I already have done so!

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