International anti-counterfeiting talks hit snags says EU

Both Parliament and the Commission have concerns about ACTA

The European Union "will not swallow" U.S. hypocrisy when negotiating an anti-counterfeiting agreement, said the senior E.U. representative involved in the talks.

European Commissioner for Trade, Karel De Gucht, made the statement during a presentation to the European Parliament on Tuesday. He was updating members of the parliament (MEPs) on the state of play of negotiations on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). But despite his tough talking and apparent hardline stance, many MEPs were unconvinced that the revised ACTA agreement will safeguard civil rights.

The agreement seeks to enforce intellectual property rights and combat online piracy and illegal software. But there are widespread fears that the international accord could infringe individual liberties and result in increased border searches for counterfeit and pirated goods. Critics are further alarmed by the secretive nature of the talks, which had been taking place behind closed doors for more than two years before the countries involved released a copy of the text in April. Supporters of the plan claim there is a global epidemic of copyright piracy.

After the release of the text in April, further negotiations resulted in revisions to the text. However, the new text will not be made public. "Who is opposing the new draft being made public? How can we carry out an external impact study without the text being made public?" demanded Green MEP Franziska Keller of the commissioner on Tuesday.

De Gucht declined to comment.

Keller said that it would be difficult to assess the impact on technology transfer if the paper is not available. The Commission has not carried out any impact studies, but still insists that data protection will be safeguarded. Keller said that it was not enough to simply take the Commission's word for it.

The commissioner was able to confirm that travelers would not face inspection of their laptops or portable electronic equipment at borders. Border security is more concerned with stopping drug trafficking or people trafficking and does not have time to worry about a few pirated tunes on iPods, he said in response to a question by Socialist MEP Stavros Lambrinidis. ACTA will operate on the "lowest common denominator" with regard to border control, said De Gucht.

But Lambrinidis had other concerns regarding ISPs. Are they compelled to give to copyright holders the names of individuals believed to have infringed them, he asked. "Is this still in the text? Why are they involving private companies? Why is there no mention of the police?" he continued.

The Commission has in the past attempted to reassure skeptics that ACTA would not see private individuals prosecuted for minor intellectual property infringements, but would only target criminality on "a commercial scale." Lambrinidis raised this issue again, asking if illegal downloading that had no financial gain motivation would be included in the final text.

There was a paragraph on this issue in a previous draft, he pointed out. Commissioner De Gucht replied that member state law will apply.

ACTA will not compel signatories to apply a so-called three-strikes rule, said De Gucht. But countries that already have a three-strikes rule can continue to implement it. He also left the door open to an E.U.-wide three-strikes rule in the future saying "the E.U. may well decide to adopt legislation at this level."

But the biggest source of dispute between the negotiating counties is intellectual property rights. "Talks have been disappointing," he said. The problem is that the E.U. wants to include geographical indications in ACTA, but others want it to only cover copyrights and trademarks. "If we do not mange to get these [geographical indications] included then I really ask myself what would be the benefit of this agreement," said De Gucht. "There is slight hypocrisy from the U.S. over the protection of geographical indications" he said, as the U.S. opposed that in ACTA, but was using trademarks to get the agreement through the back door. "We will not swallow it," he said of the E.U.'s position regarding negotiating with the U.S.

Geographical indications generally apply to high-quality agricultural products and are a name or sign placed on a product that shows its place of origin.

The countries involved in negotiations include Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States, and a further round is scheduled for the end of July. However, no breakthrough is expected before September, said De Gucht.

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