ACTA – In the Balance

The balance between human rights, particularly freedom of expression, and intellectual property, is at the heart of the current debate about the international treaty on Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement or ACTA.  ACTA deals with mechanisms to ensure that intellectual property laws, and the rights under them, are properly enforced in currently contentious areas, like digital downloads and counterfeit goods.  The treaty is also broad enough to cover generic pharmaceutical drugs.  So, on one side of this debate we have a range of corporate interests from pharma to content industries to luxury goods manufacturers, and on the other side a range of voices concerned about access to medicines, freedom of information and knowledge, and invasion of privacy.   These are not newly contentious issues – much at stake here had been an issue for many years – but now in difficult economic times when suspicion of corporations is heightened, the balance of public opinion can be swayed, and swayed more easily when the process to create the ACTA treaty was done diplomatically, behind closed doors.
Much of the criticism surrounding ACTA now that it is being, or was being, signed up to by national governments, concerns the process through which ACTA was created.  There is nothing unconventional in having the world’s governments’ diplomats and specialists working behind the scenes to create treaties on sensitive issues, but in the case of ACTA an apparent shroud of secrecy – whether real or not – has laid a foundation of distrust, at least for some.  In the US the rebuttal of freedom of information requests is cited as an example of undue reticence about the then evolving content of the treaty.  Whether or not the concerns are justified, a closed process creates a warm environment for cynicism and conspiracy theories.  All the more when sources suggest that some large corporations were getting access and influence.  In the age of instant opinion on less than a grain of truth, open processes, even if slower and more tortuous, bring the premium of carrying the majority.  In the age of instant access, that majority if silent once, is silent no more, on ACTA at least.
For intellectual property public interest is rare, public protest unheard of and practically unthinkable, but for “is” now read “was”.  Protests and petitions are now the order of the day, with a 2.4 million signature petition being recently presented to the European Parliament demanding action on ACTA.  In such circumstances politicians, serving at the will of the majority, silent or not, need to be seen to be taking action, or at least opening a public debate.  So, the process of signature and ratification of ACTA is now uncertain if not formally on hold.  Public debate can take place about the arcane world of intellectual property, and that exercise of a human right is in the public interest.