Opposition to ACTA swells in Europe

Officials line up to criticize "the new SOPA"

A British member of the European Parliament has been given the job of evaluating the controversial ACTA agreement as more European countries shy away from the intellectual-property treaty.

David Martin, from the Socialists and Democrats group, was given the job after his predecessor, French parliamentarian Kader Arif, resigned in protest at the lack of transparency surrounding ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement).

Martin vowed to have a "facts-based discussion" and to seek advice from the European Court of Justice after Arif criticized "never-before-seen maneuvers" by officials preparing the treaty.

So far 22 European Union member states have signed the international accord, which aims to strengthen copyright and intellectual-property rights enforcement. But opponents of the deal say it leaves the door open for countries to force Internet service providers to become the unofficial police of the Internet.

Amid these concerns over possible infringement of civil liberties online, both Poland and the Czech Republic have decided to delay ratification of the agreement despite signing it on Jan. 26. Last Friday, following protests on the streets of Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Poland would suspend ratification for up to a year to further examine the bill.

In the Czech Republic, the decision to delay ratification of the treaty came after the hacker group Anonymous carried out a number of cyberattacks against Czech government sites, the country's copyright association and the ruling ODS party. The Internet activists also released the private addresses and telephone numbers of senior Czech politicians to the media.

Slovakia is also having second thoughts after the country's ambassador to Japan, Helena Drnovsek Zorko, who signed the treaty, issued a public apology for having done so. "I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness, because I did not pay enough attention. Quite simply, I did not clearly connect the agreement I had been instructed to sign with the agreement that, according to my own civic conviction, limits and withholds the freedom of engagement on the largest and most significant network in human history, and thus limits particularly the future of our children. I want to apologize because I carried out my official duty, but not my civic duty. I don't know how many options I had with regard to not signing, but I could have tried," she said.

The European Commission is behind the push for ACTA in the E.U. But even some of its own members have expressed doubts. The Commission says ACTA does not restrict Internet freedoms and does not affect existing E.U. laws, but Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht has said, "ACTA does change existing EU rules."

Cyprus, Estonia, The Netherlands, Germany and Slovakia have yet to sign the agreement and whether they will still do so with protests spreading remains to be seen. However anti-ACTA activists see the European Parliament as their last bastion of hope. The deal must get Parliament's approval before it can be adopted in the E.U. And a large number of parliamentarians are on the record as being against it.

Parliament's international trade committee will discuss the agreement on Feb.29. It must then reach an opinion that it will put to the larger body. The full vote in plenary is scheduled for June. However the Parliament can only vote for or against approval of the text; it cannot introduce amendments.

A public workshop on ACTA will be held in Brussels on March 1.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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Jennifer Baker

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