The bills were shelved just days afterwards and Internet activists considered the blackout to be a huge victory for freedom online.
But in an ironic twist, 22 European Union countries formally signed another, and this time, global, anti-piracy agreement – the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) – just one week after the SOPA blackouts. Thousands took to the streets across European cities in protest, most notably in Poland.
Canada had already signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on Oct 1 2011, along with Australia, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and the United States.
But what is the difference between all these agreements, and what exactly do they mean?
SOPA was a U.S. bill tackling copyright infringement online. Its passing would have changed many websites as we know them by barring search engines from linking to infringing sites, as well as banning advertisers from conducting business with them. It could also have forced Internet service providers to block access to the sites altogether, and imposed a maximum penalty of five years in prison for unauthorized streaming of copyright material – yikes.
PIPA was SOPA’s sister bill. Under current U.S. law, if a user uploads a copyrighted movie to sites like Youtube, the user is held accountable, not the site. The site must only provide a way to report user infringement. PIPA sought to shift the blame onto the site itself, and provide ways for copyright holders to seize and shut down domain names.
The ACTA is a whole different animal. It’s an international agreement – not just U.S. bill – that has been in negotiations since 2007, which seeks to target physical counterfeit products as well as digital pirating. It’s trickier, and for some, more alarming.
California Rep. Darrell Issa called ACTA “more dangerous than SOPA” in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum.
“It’s not coming to me for a vote,” he said. “It purports that it does not change existing laws. But once implemented, it creates a whole new enforcement system and will virtually tie the hands of Congress to undo it.”
Canada, too, has been divided on the agreement. It received some backlash in the House of Commons, when a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage report recommended limiting Canada’s ACTA commitments in March 2011.
Though the ACTA is far from harmless, much of the more extreme of the proposals from earlier drafts were removed or watered down in the final version – partly because of intense public reaction.
So why the controversy? On the surface, a lot of the proposals are relatively moderate compared to SOPA’s.
The agreement’s biggest issues are its lack of transparency and its attempts to bypass existing laws and procedures, as well as potentially forcing legislative changes. It’s been, overall, handled pretty shadily – negotiations were shrouded for years in extreme secrecy until the agreement gained public notoriety when Wikileaks published leaked discussions.
In a blog post, renowned Internet law expert Michael Geist also expressed concerns over the agreement’s potential to bully other countries into conceding to the ACTA’s demands. “The express exclusion of many countries from the process raises real fears that they will face increased pressure to meet ACTA standards in the years ahead.”
If implemented, the ACTA would establish a new, higher minimum of copyright protections and enforcement that countries must provide, without also requiring countries to protect intellectual freedom on the other side of the coin. It thus gives greater weight to stopping international Internet pirating than it does to ensuring freedom of expression. It would potentially be able to skirt existing legislation, and may force other countries that refuse to sign – especially less wealthy ones – to concede to its demands.
According to Geist, the ACTA will only take effect once five countries have formally implemented it, and he does not expect this to happen until at least May 2013.
Once again, the tech community is organizing against the agreement, viewing it as an enormous threat to a free and open Internet. There are global initiatives such as the AccessNow petition, which already has over 250,000 signatures.
In Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs is conducting an open consultation on ACTA. If you are concerned about the consequences of the ACTA, you can email your comments to the department and have your voice heard.
Stefani Forster is Spanish-Canadian hailing from Toronto, Ontario with ties to Ibiza, Spain. She graduated from McGill University with a B.A. in English literature and women’s studies before continuing her graduate studies in journalism at Concordia University. She also spent six months studying abroad in New Zealand and travelling Australia during her undergrad.
Stef has worked at advertising agencies in Toronto and Montreal – PHD Canada and Touche! PHD, respectively. She loves social and digital media, as well as writing, travelling and cozying up to a good book.
She currently resides in the NDG area of Montreal with her bestie and beloved kitty.