Over 30,000 young Europeans took to the streets of their capital cities this weekend to protest ACTA, a controversial international copyright agreement.
ACTA (known to its friends as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is, according to the British government, a "plurilateral treaty that seeks to improve the global enforcement of intellectual property rights" through "common enforcement standards." However, according to Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, the treaty is "setting up dangerous new pressures to censor the internet to remove users and put pressure on [Internet Service Providers] to start policing for copyright." Sound familiar?
ACTA, a globe-spanning treaty with an emphasis on controlling the movements of copyrighted material on the internet in a fashion that has won it the nickname "Europe's SOPA," has drawn the ire of internet users all across the European Union. This weekend, tens of thousands of them took to the streets of cities as diverse as Berlin and Vilnius to protest the proposal in some of the coldest weather the continent has seen for weeks (it was 14 degrees Fahrenheit in Berlin, apparently).
Strictly speaking, ACTA isn't new news - the proposal spent years in the draft process before eight governments, including the United States and Japan, signed ACTA-as-is last October and in doing so gave their agreement to the legislation - but only recently have European politicians started signing up to the scheme. While Germany and France have abstained from adding their names to the roster, the governments of the United Kingdom and others have signed up. The legislation will be debated in the European Parliament in June 2012, supposing any European names are left on ACTA's back pages by then.
This hasn't stopped Europeans from reacting angrily to the notion of ACTA, however. Street protests against the internet-censorship aspects of the treaty kicked off in Poland at the beginning of January and have since spiralled into the multinational, tens-of-thousands-clad-in-Guy-Fawkes-masks events seen this past weekend.
For the most part, protestors are angry at the dispensation ACTA gives for law enforcement agencies to rifle through internet activity records and potentially make sharing bits and pieces of copyrighted material online a criminal offense. "We don't feel safe anymore. The Internet was one of the few places where we could act freely," said Monica Tepelus, a protestor in Bucharest, summing up popular attitudes towards the treaty.
"It's not acceptable to sacrifice the rights of freedom for copyrights," commented Thomas Pfeiffer, a leader of the Munich's Green Party and one of the 25,000 German protestors.
The protestors' outrage is so pointed and the participants so active that the tide does truly seem to be in their favor (the governments of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia decided to delay their signatures after seeing the level of protest, for example). This is one of the biggest cross-EU protests ever seen and if it can sustain the momentum required for European governments to reconsider their positions, it could become a genuine success story. I love a good standing-on-cars-in-the-snow-shouting-at-lawmakers underdog tale, don't you? More power to them.