Anti-piracy agreement ACTA blocked by MEPs
by Daniel Mason
The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement has been rejected by the European Parliament in a decisive vote during its plenary session in Strasbourg today, a result that has been described as a "great day for democracy". But ACTA supporters warned that failing to protect intellectual property rights would harm Europe's economy.
The international agreement sought to tackle the piracy of both online digital content and physical goods such as medicines, but will not now be ratified in the European Union after MEPs blocked it by 478 votes to 39. It follows widespread campaigns and protests against ACTA amid claims that it would restrict internet freedom. The parliament received a petition signed by 2.8 million people from around the world urging it kill off the deal.
As many as 165 MEPs abstained from the vote after failing to postpone the decision to wait for a ruling on ACTA's legality from the European Court of Justice. But the majority in favour of rejection was overwhelming and David Martin, author of the parliamentary report that recommended the treaty be blocked, said ACTA was "now dead in the EU". The British MEP, a member of the Socialists and Democrats group, added: "The treaty is too vague and open to misinterpretation. I will always support civil liberties over intellectual property right protection."
It was the first time the parliament had used powers it was given in the Lisbon Treaty to reject an international agreement. President of the parliament Martin Schulz said: "The majority in the parliament is of the opinion that ACTA is too vague, leaving room for abuses and raising concern about its impact on consumers' privacy and civil liberties, on innovation and the free flow of information." He said the debate demonstrated "the existence of European public opinion that transcends national borders".
The leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt, said ACTA had "raised numerous concerns in civil society and even those who, like us, are in favour of intellectual property rights were at a loss to find arguments to defend the agreement". Gabi Zimmer, leader of the United European Left/Nordic Green Left group, went further, describing it as a "great day for participatory democracy and the power of campaigning".
And Amelia Andersdotter, spokeswoman on ACTA for the Greens/European Free Alliance, said it was a "just and democratic response to the mass mobilisation by citizens across Europe". She said future discussions on protecting intellectual property rights should recognise that "there can be no sweeping, one size fits all approach" to enforcement as different sectors of the economy face different challenges.
Meanwhile Oxfam spokeswoman Le´la Bodeux welcomed the result as a "real turning point" and a "victory for poor people over the interests of big pharmaceutical companies". With much of the focus on ACTA's impact on internet freedom, Oxfam highlighted its potential to limit the legitimate movement of generic medicines by making companies producing affordable drugs subject to criminal prosecutions or having their medicines seized.
But supporters of ACTA said the result would be damaging for intellectual property rights, jobs and the economy. "Europe could have seized the chance to support an important treaty that improved intellectual property standard internationally," said Alan C. Drewsen, executive director of the International Trademark Association. "We expect that ACTA will move ahead without the EU, which is a significant loss for the 27 member states."
Dominick Luquer, secretary general of the International Federation of Actors, added that it was unfortunate that the debate had been "framed in terms of censorship and 'breaking of the internet' rather than about protecting the economic basis for jobs in Europe". A letter in support of ACTA was signed by more than 130 trade federations representing 120 million employees in Europe's innovative, manufacturing and creative sectors.
"Rejecting ACTA flat out, without trying to address concrete concerns, after years of negotiating does nothing to handle the serious threat to European jobs and enterprises that it intended to solve," said Christofer Fjellner MEP, from the European People's Party, which attempted to postpone the vote. "Large scale infringements of intellectual property rights cost Europeans hundreds of thousands of jobs and many millions in lost revenues."
European Commissioner for trade Karel De Gucht said he would still wait for the opinion of the European court, then "consult with our international partners on how to move forward on this issue". Political support for ACTA had already been won in the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. Today's vote means neither the EU nor its individual member states will take part.