Acting on ACTA

Humans share things. It is one of the defining traits of our species, and it is something that many people overlook when waxing philosophical about what separates us from the animals. We give things to each other – often in exchange for other things, but often because we get joy from it. We want everyone to like what we like. Some might say we need to feel that others enjoy the same things we do. The internet has allowed people to share who they are with the world like no other medium in humanity’s history. The term ‘Social Media’ and the industry which has sprung up around it is only possible at all because humans love sharing.

Given this innate desire to share, it is incredibly disheartening to see constant attacks on our very ability to do so through the world wide web, often under the guise of preventing piracy or protecting children. The latest round of attacks, SOPA, PIPA and ACTA to name a few, are by and large the result of increasing pressure from entertainment industry lobbyists hell-bent on preserving what many see as outdated business models which are incompatible with the modern world. It is not my intention here to focus on the campaigns already in progress to fend off these attacks, but please at least visit the Wiki links and read the criticism sections.

As both a musician and a software developer, the ability to share is of paramount importance to me. From my perspective as a musician, I want to be able to listen to other musicians create music. I want to be able to share my own music with others, and, if I choose to ever sell music in the future, I want to be able to do so in a way that means customers have the simplest possible way to buy, download, and listen to my tracks. I am confident that many artists feel the same. The multitude of services on the internet which allow artists – be they musicians, directors, writers, or photographers – is astounding, and has opened the door for new businesses and independents like never before. The barrier to entry is now the cost of an internet connection, and your market is the world. This is amazing and it is disappointing that this concept is being touted as dangerous to businesses and jobs when the reality is that the entertainment industry is in a better position than ever before. The same old lines are trotted out again and again, and the traditional media keeps ignoring the point: The entertainment industry is not dying. It is growing faster than it ever has. There is more content being produced and sold globally than at any point in the past. The reason for aggressive attacks like SOPA and ACTA is that the big players are, to put it simply, dinosaurs. Changing their entire approach to selling entertainment is going to be expensive, and they are simply not wired to think of new approaches using the internet. Every single attempt at protecting intellectual property in the digital age has followed the same tactic, and it goes like this:

Buy this, but never, ever share it.

Digital media is unique in that ‘sharing’ generally involves creating a copy – and this is understandably worrying for an industry whose entire business model is based on selling as many copies of the same thing as possible. However, Apple’s successes with iTunes, and the growing consensus that a subscription based model such as Netflix and Spotify is the ‘new way’ have illustrated that there is room for experimentation. There are new models that can be tried. To quote my favourite film, which I have paid numerous times to watch:

Life, and the entertainment industry, will find a way.

Whether those new models are good or bad for content producers is not what I’m concerned with at the moment. I’m happy enough that there is an alternative to the traditional methods. I may not be in the future – but for now, I am relatively comfortable with the idea of paying £10 a month for all the music I like. My only major issue with subscription services is that they necessitate a walled garden – which once again places a barrier to entry on the people who produce the content.

As a software developer, I am obviously concerned with anything that has an impact on how I pay my bills – and my overriding concern with things like SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA is that I am being left out of the conversation. I have no issue with businesses wanting to stop people stealing their products (I am not interested in the debate about whether file-sharing can be called ‘stealing’ for now). A few years ago, when there was no such thing as Spotify, my approach was ‘they’ll figure it out eventually, or they’ll fail. That’s how capitalism works’. Unfortunately (and this is difficult for me to say), the Libertarians are right in this case. What they complain about – the inevitable collusion of corporations and governments to the benefit of a few and the detriment of many – is happening right now. ACTA is a trade agreement that has been organised behind closed doors and pushed in front of our politicians without any discussion with the rest of us having taken place. I want my concerns addressed, because I am terrified that a success for the entertainment industry here will lead to an onslaught against small or independent businesses who are trying new ideas and technology – thereby crippling competition and ensuring that only a few gatekeepers to content remain.

If ACTA and the like are allowed to succeed – then it won’t be long until we stop seeing things like this everywhere:

The argument will be that any website which allows user created content has the potential to be used for illegal file-sharing, and that this is A Very Bad Thing and should be prevented at all costs. Your ability to share things you create or love will disappear, and we will all be worse off for it.

If you’ve ever done anything like this:

then you need to be worried about things like ACTA, and you need to start making a noise about it. I have written to several MPs and MEPs over the last few weeks, and only one so far has had the courtesy to respond – Arlene McCarthy, MEP. A few people have asked me to post her comments on-line, so here’s the full e-mail response:

Dear Mr Halligan


Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) between the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the US.


The European Parliament has a formal role in the eventual approval or rejection of this Agreement. The negotiations concluded in November 2010, and each negotiating party is now in the process of ratifying and signing the Agreement. In the EU this requires agreement from the Council of Ministers (made up of the 27 Member States) and the European Parliament. On Thursday 26 January 2012 twenty-two Member States (including the UK) signed the agreement.


The European Parliament will now draft a report to recommend whether or not Parliament should give its approval to the Agreement, and this will be done by the International Trade committee. This is expected to begin next month. Parliament’s political leverage over the European Commission has therefore been substantial given that the Agreement cannot be ratified without Parliament’s approval.


In addition to its legislative role, Parliament monitored the negotiations throughout the 11 rounds and adopted Resolutions highlighting our priorities to the Commission. In March 2010 Labour Euro MPs co-authored a Resolution where we proposed and successfully incorporated several points on transparency and civil liberties into the Resolutions.


Firstly we made it clear that the European Commission – as the EU’s negotiator in ACTA – needed to put pressure on the other participants to open up the negotiations to public scrutiny through the publication of a draft negotiating text.


Secondly we stressed that ACTA must target only commercial and not individual counterfeiters. In our opinion the need to address serious counterfeiting should not lead to any erosion of civil liberties. My colleagues and I do not support so called border measures such as the searching by Customs of travellers’ iPods or laptops for illegally downloaded files.


Finally we stated that ACTA should not extend beyond the European Community ‘acquis’ or, in other words, no new intellectual property legislation should be created as a result. The European Union is a signatory to various international Agreements on intellectual property such as the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). It is important for the European Parliamentary Labour Party that ACTA is consistent with TRIPS and other existing Agreements on Intellectual Property.


I and my colleagues share the frustrations of many constituents who believed the negotiations should have been conducted in a more transparent manner. The European Parliament put significant pressure on the European Commission during the negotiations to increase transparency. The Commission was successful in persuading other ACTA negotiating partners to release a consolidated negotiating text. While Parliament continued to call for the further release of all negotiating texts with individual country positions, we were disappointed that further opening up of the negotiations could not be agreed by all negotiating parties.


Please be assured that the Parliament’s commitment to transparency also applies to our consideration of the ACTA agreement in the International Trade committee. Once the Parliament analysis and discussions in Parliament begin, debates and considerations of the text will be fully open to the public and streamed live on the European Parliament website.


Thank you again for writing to me on this issue. Please be assured that my colleagues and I will analyse the text of the Agreement very carefully before the European Parliament gives its assent.


Yours sincerely


Arlene McCarthy

Member of the European Parliament


Make of her response what you will, but I’d at least like to thank Arlene for having the decency to respond. I am not yet pacified or convinced that ACTA will not be a terrible thing for the internet, but I am a little happier knowing that our MEPs already have concerns.

My goal is to encourage people, whatever opinion they may have on ACTA (and other similar bills and agreements), to talk about it. It’s not just me who feels left out of the conversation. Demand that your representatives start representing you and addressing your concerns. If we don’t stand up now in defence of the ability to share, to create freely, and to discover new and amazing things, then who will? The end-game for the big players is to turn the internet into a passive medium, so that you can only see what they let you see, and they will only let you see what you pay them for. It is the ultimate walled garden, and any competition or innovation will be stamped out and destroyed.