Thursday 5 July 2012

ACTA rejected in the European Parliament

A victory yesterday for the Parliament and the demonstrators across the continent who have been keeping up the pressure against the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement: the treaty was rejected by 478 votes to 39, with 165 abstentions. A conservative amendment to send the treaty back to committee and wait for the ECJ judgment on the treaty's compatibility with EU law was also rejected leading up to the vote, resulting in right-wing MEPs abstaining from the vote - supporting the treaty, but afraid to nail their colours to the mast in the face of public controversy. Though 22 Member States have ratified the treaty, the approval of the EP was needed before it would come into force anywhere in the EU.

The public controversy and campaign against the treaty is now the model for using the Parliament to make the EU more democratically accountable. It was not just an online campaign, but included demonstrations all over Europe, and political pressure building through the national parliaments. It helps that the issue was one of online politics, with a constituency that would probably find it the easiest to mobilise across borders. Will we see other such European civil society campaigns? Digital and civil rights related issues will probably remain the most natural campaign issues. When it comes to the digital marketplace and the internal market, as well as crime and child protection on the internet, the EU is a main actor given that these technological developments have appeared and grown as parts of the economy during the internal market's existence, and since purely national regulations don't make quite as much sense as an approach here.

Direct campaigns on this scale are quite difficult to create and sustain, and generally seem to be best directed towards the rejection of a draft law or treaty, and don't often happen in many states. So will this help stimulate the opening up of the European Parliament? So far many of the Parliament's stands have centred mainly on its place in the institutional triangle with the Commission and Council. While there was some institutional self-interest in this case (the EP wants to be more involved in treaty negotiations), the political groups took their positions to garner public support. It was perhaps also an ideological battle since the right in the Parliament was broadly in favour of ACTA or an ACTA-like agreement, while the liberal and left wing groups were more ready to oppose it. Environmental and economic issues are also important and high on the public's agenda, but it is harder to build a campaign for such complicated policy areas for a positive change rather than rejecting proposals. Hopefully the ACTA case will spur political and electoral innovation by the Europarties and parliamentary groups by demonstrating that there is a politically aware public to tap into.

ACTA itself may be dead, but governments are likely to continue to try to push further and further on enforcement mechanisms for copyright without a reappraisal of copyright in a digital world. It's a very important debate, and it would truly be impressive if the European Parliament tried to take a lead in the debate on how to adapt copyright so creativity in the economy and the arts is encouraged and promoted, yet prevent the misuse of copyright in the courts and in society in a way that actually dampens creativity and could in some cases endangers free speech if badly enforced. It's not enough to halt the mindless and crude enforcement of a flawed system; we need to be proactive in adapting.

If the European Parliament is smart, it can capitalise on this and serve as a platform for an important 21st Century debate. And if they don't, we should force them: we've proven we can have an impact on the European stage.

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