The (temporary) demise of SOPA and PIPA means attention is now turning to ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), which is an international effort to strengthen intellectual property rights. ACTA not only threatens websites, but also other things like low-cost medicines. Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States are the key players, but pressure is already being applied to other countries to join. The EU has not yet signed ACTA but has to do so before May 2013.
The BRIC group of emerging nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – are not (yet) part of the ACTA movement and so far have shown few signs of taking part. The Indian government has indicated that it is opposed to ACTA, and is said to be working on plans to try to create a counter-movement. Whether that action will have any success is difficult to determine, but the point is that ACTA is being seen by many as an attempt to preserve the business right of the ‘traditional’ economic super-powers. If the BRIC nations lead a break-away group, global trade could effectively be cut in half and even things like international shipping routes could become complicated by various attempts to enforce opposing laws.
As with SOPA and PIPA, ACTA takes a fairly uncontroversial idea – the right of companies to exploit their own intellectual property – and turns it into a monster of unaccountable protectionism. Even if companies were to follow the rules of ACTA, the impact on the global economy could be severe. And that’s before you consider the terrible track record of companies who tend to abuse any powers they are given in this regard, with little or no risk of recrimination. ACTA is effectively an attempt to protect the current domination of western nations, and in this sense it is no surprise that such a proposal has been put on the table. The question is whether it can be successful without the participation of the BRIC countries, which at the moment have no incentives to join and many reasons to stay outside the system.
The really scary thing about ACTA is that it provides the basis to criminalise almost any online activity. Obviously governments aren’t going to round up 99% of internet users, but ACTA will give them a pretext to shut down any site, and imprison its owners, should there be political or corporate objections to that site’s content. For example, imagine a site runs an embarrassing political story; the site perhaps can’t be shut down because of that story, but ACTA will allow the authorities to find some other obscure breach that can be used. That’s also true of SOPA and PIPA. The question is, after fighting so hard agaisnt SOPA and PIPA, is there enough momentum to try to derail ACTA, which is far more advanced?