This week may see a rare occurrence in the European Parliament – the defeat of a key item in the big business agenda pushed by European Commission. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is set to be voted on by the full plenary of the European Parliament today, despite some last minute chicanery by the European People’s Party to try to delay the vote.
Given the votes against ACTA that have already taken place in the International Trade Committee and other committees in the Parliament, if the pressure is kept up, it looks set to be defeated. The sole reason we may be on the verge of an important victory is because of the massive movement of protest that has erupted against it. As I write, emails are arriving from those opposed to ACTA at a rate of around one per minute. MEPs from all political groups have had their inboxes flooded by anti-ACTA activists and the European Parliament website was shut down for a day by anti-ACTA activists. Almost three million people have signed an online petition against ACTA.
As well as this online movement of opposition, there have been protests across Europe. Ireland saw a number of protests of hundreds of people against ACTA. In some other countries in Europe, much larger protests of tens of thousands of people developed. These protests were a decisive factor in the resignation of the Romanian President, Emil Bloc and in Bulgaria the minister responsible for ACTA was forced to offer his resignation.
This movement and the potential defeat of ACTA tomorrow is a vindication of a campaigning approach of mobilising protests to bring massive pressure to bear on politicians. This pressure has been evident at the meetings of the International Trade Committee (INTA – the committee responsible for dealing with ACTA) in the Parliament, which I am a member of, where right-wing MEPs have been visibly squirming under the pressure.
Contempt for democracy
The response of the European Commission to this popular opposition has been arrogant in the extreme. The EU Trade Commissioner, Karel de Gucht, a neo-liberal ideologue, wrote to all of the MEPs on the INTA committee a few months ago. He declared that:
“In the last few days, some parts of civil society have intensified their campaign against this agreement. As we have seen before, and despite the European Commission’s efforts to provide all the relevant facts, the action they take is based on misinformation, or possibly even worse, on wilful misinterpretation of the content of the agreement.”
In this statement, the opposition of millions of Europeans to this agreement is reduced to ignorance. Who needs democracy when we have the European Commission to decide! This undemocratic approach has been mirrored by the Commission when faced with the growing opposition to ACTA in the Parliament, reflecting the opposition outside.
Two weeks ago, Commissioner de Gucht came to the International Trade Committee the day before it was due to vote on ACTA to address the committee in a last ditch attempt to get it passed. Here his contempt for democracy once more shone through, as he declared:
“If you decide for a negative vote before the European Court rules, let me tell you that the Commission will nonetheless continue to pursue the current procedure before the Court, as we are entitled to do. A negative vote will not stop the proceedings before the court of Justice.”
This reference to the European Court of Justice is a trick that the Commission used in order to try to buy time and allow the pressure to ease off. They referred it to the Court hoping for a positive endorsement, which could then be used to push ahead with ACTA at a later date. De Gucht went on to say that even if the ECJ ruled that it was not compatible, he will simply try to get around this ruling, saying, “We will assess at that stage how this can be addressed.”
De Gucht also explained that if the European Parliament voted against the Treaty, they would also simply try to get around it by seeking some “clarifications” to ACTA and then seeking a second vote in the European Parliament. This sounds suspiciously like the procedure carried out with the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland, where meaningless ‘clarification’ were promised in a ‘Protocol’ to the treaty and the Irish people were forced to vote a second time in order to provide the ‘right’ outcome.
“The oil of the 21st century”
Why is the Commission pushing this agreement so hard, and why has it been met with such a massive response across Europe? The answer lies in the nature of capitalism today in the developed capitalist economies and the importance of intellectual property for big business. As Mark Getty, chairman of Getty Images, famously claimed, “Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century.” This sums it up. ACTA is a mechanism to facilitate that ‘oil’ being privately owned and exploited by the rich. It is a tool to protect the profits of the major corporations by protecting their intellectual property. It does this at the expense of civil liberties, internet freedom, and by endangering access to generic medicines and seeds.
ACTA is a direct by-product of a lobbying offensive launched in 2004 by the International Chamber of Commerce. It was then presided over by the CEO of Vivendi Universal (a huge media corporation), Jean-René Fourtou, whose wife was the MEP responsible for the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive! Formal negotiations for ACTA were launched in October 2007 and the whole process was shrouded in secrecy, with no transparency or open negotiations. It was only in 2010 (three years into the negotiations) that a draft text was released.
The full ACTA treaty can be read here. Although, as is typical, it is written in dense legalese, the essence of it is simple enough. It is a means to impose pressure on the countries that sign ACTA to implement laws to crack down on intellectual property theft. Article 27 deals with “digital enforcement” and puts pressure on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to enforce civil and criminal law in the online environment. It is an attempt to turn the ISPs into a private police force for the major entertainment industries to police breaches of copyright. This represents a real threat to internet freedoms. It also involves a breach of the right to privacy by potentially allowing corporations to access private data from ISPs about their users, without any decision by a judge. ACTA also provides that criminal sanctions must be applied for cases of infringement of IPR on a “commercial scale”. This is a deliberately open term and could be used to demand criminal sanctions on those involved in not-for-profit filesharing.
A number of NGOs including Oxfam have correctly raised the concern that ACTA could limit access to generic medicines. Generic medicines could potentially be seized at customs and treated as ‘counterfeit’. The same applies to generic seeds. Although the European Commission denies it, if ACTA comes into force it is likely to demand, either openly or covertly, that less developed countries sign up to ACTA before agreeing any Free Trade Agreements. The process of ACTA has been fundamentally undemocratic since its very inception. If it is established, that lack of democracy would be enshrined with the establishment of a powerful and non-transparent ‘ACTA committee’.
The alternative to ACTA
It is clear in whose interests ACTA is being driven. The protests that have taken place have given a glimpse of how these interests and this agenda can be tackled. Of course, even if ACTA is defeated, it is obvious from de Gucht’s comments that the Commission will return to this agenda and continue to try and strengthen intellectual property rights. It will need to be met again and again by mass movements. More fundamentally, however, there needs to be a struggle for a fundamentally different model of dealing with intellectual property.
The alternative to the model of ownership of knowledge pushed by ACTA and similar measures like SOPA is a rejection of the presumption that ideas and research should be held privately. In fact, we need free sharing of knowledge in the interests of the world’s population. This can only be done by breaking the stranglehold of the major corporations over research and development and artistic creation. Through democratic public ownership, research and knowledge could be shared for the benefit of all of society and a model developed to guarantee a fair return and decent standard of living for artists.
The pressure needs to be kept up for the next day to try to ensure we defeat ACTA in the European Parliament tomorrow. If we do, it should not mean that the people who have been active against ACTA are demobilised. Continuing vigilance and mobilisation will be necessary to stop further attempts along the same lines, but also to struggle for a socialist model of free sharing of knowledge.