The advent of the internet has been a complex issue for courts and lawmakers. Like any revolutionary innovation, the net has its benefits and its drawbacks and its unintended consequences. It has required new definitions to be made and lines to be drawn in legal areas that have became suddenly grey. We’ve had to think and re-think what free speech means in the digital sphere and accommodate such new problems as “trolls” and cyber-bullying. The courts have had to make rulings on digital libel and piracy, and gradually but surely, like every new frontier, the internet has been boxed in with rules, regulations, and restrictions. But how far is too far?
Recently, ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, has been the talk of the net, and anyone paying attention has seen some serious international discussion. More than 30 nations have been involved in the ACTA negotiations for more than 3 years; included are the United States, Germany, France, and other European and Asian nations. I wish I could tell you exactly what it’s all about, but that’s the problem–no one really knows. The negotiators have thus far refused to release information on what’s been discussed or where it is going, claiming that it is still in too early of stages to do so–although it’s been years and a draft has already been drawn. The secrecy of it all has raised suspicions worldwide, and many have found the little bits of information that have been leaked to be disturbing.
Perhaps the most controversial is a three-strikes-you’re-out provision, which would punish anyone who was caught violating copyright law by illegally downloading or sharing music or other intellectual property more than twice with a loss of internet “privileges.” How would this be done, and on what scale? This is a multi-national effort. Would there be an international blacklist of known internet piraters? Would the federal government dish out the punishment, or would the private internet service providers? Should we be expecting some international internet policing bureau to start calling the shots for the web? We don’t know. And therein lies the reason that individuals and European nations have called for greater transparency in the negotiations: in large part to mitigate the explosion of rumors and speculation that the secrecy has brought.
Opensource.com has an interesting take on copyright protection issues–it operates on the belief that society would be better off without copyrights and patents at all. At the very least, they want to let people know that patents and copyrights are not the only way to do things, and they promote their open-source model. In their own words, “The term open source began as a way to describe software source code and the collaborative model for how it’s developed. Red Hat used this model for developing technology and built a business model around open source and its principles: Openness. Transparency. Collaboration. Diversity. Rapid prototyping.” Wikipedia is a great example of an open-source platform; the information isn’t owned or protected, anyone can view, add, or modify content that is open to peer-review. Opensource.com envisions a world where information, software, and other forms of development are free and collaborative.
In a move that would even further regulate online content, the United States faces the potential passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which would grant the government vastly more power than it has ever had to censor and shut down websites, including the authority to shut down a site like Flickr or Youtube for copyright infringement, even if it’s only in user-generated content. Thus, at the same time that it would give the government discretion for determining web content, it would put impossible pressure on private website owners to police and censor their user’s content. As one blogger on the Washington Post put it: “Imagine a country where the government is able to shut down Web sites at the slightest provocation, where elected representatives invoke fears of ‘overseas pirates’ to defend the interests of domestic industries, and where Internet companies like Google must cave in to the demands of government censors or risk being shut down.”
Although Germany has been a part of the ACTA negotiations, it has not condoned its secrecy or all of the draft agreement. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who has represented Germany in the ACTA talks, clarified that Germany would not implement any law or accept any treaty that would block internet access from the people. “The refusal to implement Internet bans is a conviction shared by the entire government,” she said, “In our government coalition agreement, we stated we would not resort to initiatives for the blocking of Internet access.”
The Piraten Party, which has built a strong platform on supporting internet freedom, unsurprisingly strongly opposes the treaty. Blogs like Stopp-ACTA have also sprung up in defense of online freedom, increasing awareness about the negotiations, urging others to spread the word, and circulating an online petition. This video, a sort of online PSA about ACTA, has been circulating the web as well:
The EU Friends of Transparency group, which has 14 member nations including Germany, Britain, France, and Italy, have written an appeal to the negotiators to disclose the text of the draft agreement, but their request has not yet been met. Schnarrenberger has also expressed the need for transparency, stating that “the draft negotiating texts should be published as soon as possible.” The appeal from the Friends of Transparency also asks that the EU presidency and the European Parliament “strongly pursue the position that the consolidated draft negotiating text should be made public as soon as possible.” It is most disturbing to some that the European Parliament and other officials have been refused information on the negotiations while media corporations not only have access to the information, but have been included in the negotiating process since the beginning.
What is your opinion? Would you support a three-strikes copyright-violation punishment? Would you support an international treaty like this at all? Why might the negotiators want to keep it such a secret? I’d love to know what you think in a comment below!