US signs international anti-piracy agreement

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By Joshua Ostrer

On Oct. 1, the United States signed the finally-finished Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). A special signing ceremony was held in Tokyo with the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea all signing the agreement.

The ACTA seeks to establish “international standards on intellectual property rights enforcement.” The ACTA has apparently  been provoked by countries trying to protect their goods from copyright infringement. “[The ACTA is in response] to the increase in global trade of counterfeit goods and pirated copyright protected works,” said the Ministry of Economic Development of New Zealand in its report.

The ACTA is supposed to apply to any counterfeit goods, generic medicines and any form of copyright infringement over the internet. The agreement, aside from restricting illegal copyright infringements, makes devices designed to obtain the illegal copyright information illegal themselves.

While that may not sound like a major problem, “…circumvention of effective technological measures” could be applied to cover everything from using a region-free DVD player to saving a copy of an online video. If you’ve ever used a media player like VLC or ripped a DVD, you’ve violated this part of ACTA.

ACTA was not passed overnight. The idea for the agreement was developed by the United States and Japan in 2006, with Canada, the European Union and Switzerland joining into talks beginning later that year, and a number of additional countries joining in 2008.

What’s particularly worrysome about ACTA is that despite promises of greater transparency from the Obama administration, the US fought to keep everything related to the ACTA considered “a national security” secret by the United States government.

Despite the classification, papers documenting the talks have been leaked on multiple occasions in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the first of which was released by Wikileaks on May 22, 2008. The most  recent of these leaks finally led European governments to publicly release parts of the text of the agreement.

The version of ACTA signed last week does not include the most controversial element of earlier drafts that effectively forced  member states to accept “four-strikes-and-you’re-out” policies that would deny an internet user’s access to the internet following their fourth copyright offense. European governments, reacting to public opinion, are largely responsible for the removal of this element.

In addition to concerns about the secrecy surrounding the projects, the agreement has sparked additional controversy due to fear that ACTA permits rights violations in order to track down copyright infringements. The fear that ACTA will be used to violate the constitutional protections has put organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) up in arms. “ACTA has several features that raise significant potential concerns for consumers’ privacy and civil liberties for innovation and the free flow of information on the Internet legitimate commerce and for developing countries’ ability to choose policy options that best suit their domestic priorities and level of economic development,” said the EFF.

Despite not signing the treaty, the European Union, Mexico and Switzerland pledged their dedication to the ACTA. “[They] attended the ceremony and confirmed their continuing strong support for and preparations to sign the Agreement as soon as practicable,” said a joint press statement of the ACTA Negotiating Parties.

While the Obama administration has argued it doesn’t need Senate approval on the grounds that ACTA is not a “treaty” but an “agreement,” organizations like the EFF encourage anyone interested in the actual information held within the ACTA agreement, to contact their senator to express their concerns and demand transparency.

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