According to once-secret, now-leaked sections of the new, plurilateral Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, global Internet users and ISPs might be in for a world of hurt in the near future.
A U.S.-drafted chapter on Internet use would require ISPs to police user-generated content, to cut off Internet access for copyright violators, and to remove content that is accused of copyright violation without any proof of actual violation. The chapter also completely prohibits DRM workarounds, even for archiving or retrieving one's own work. Read on for details and implications.
The U.S. drafted this chapter under the strictest measures to ensure secrecy. Only 42 specific persons - such as representatives of Google, Intel, Verizon, Time Warner, Sony, News Corp, eBay, the MPAA and the RIAA - were given access to the document under nondisclosure agreements: a corporate cabal hand-selected to help review the text of the final agreement. The politicians involved in creating the document are also heavily funded by entertainment, media, and IP corporations such as Sony, Time Warner, News Corp, and Disney.
As with other sections of the treaty, portions of this element have been leaked online. As it stands, the leaks suggest Internet users around the world are headed for a new regime of IP enforcement - a culture of invasive searches, minimal privacy, guilt until innocence is proven and measures that would kill our normative behaviors of file-sharing, free software, media downloading, creative remixing and even certain civil liberties.
Allegedly modeled on sections of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the treaty would require ISPs to police user activity for possible copyright violation, and ISPs would be held responsible for any infringing content being uploaded or downloaded. This all spells a huge boon to the established entertainment industry and a huge burden for ISPs.
"In order for ISPs to qualify for a safe harbor," writes Michael Geist, who has published the substance of the leaked material, "they would be required establish policies to deter unauthorized storage and transmission of IP infringing content. Provisions... include policies to terminate subscribers in appropriate circumstances." That means a three-strikes rule would apply to anyone who was accused of violating copyright in any way; ISPs would be required to terminate the user's account after three complaints from the content owner. For something as culturally accepted as downloading music, a user's entire household could be cut off from the Internet and access to information, communication, personal account management, et cetera.
Geist continues, "Notice-and-takedown, which is not currently the law in Canada nor a requirement under WIPO, would also be an ACTA requirement." In other words, whether or not a piece of content or media violates copyright would be arbitrary; the content would be removed by the ISP as soon as a takedown notice was issued. The takedown would be enforced regardless of considerations such as fair use. This policy, which mirrors the DMCA, would be enforced for all nations participating in the treaty.
Finally, the treaty includes a ban on circumventing DRM and other copyright-protecting measures in hardware and software, as well as a ban on the manufacture, import and distribution of circumvention tools. Again, this ban is irrespective of circumstance or content ownership and is inflexible.
Our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, arbiters of freer use of copyrighted material, have this to say:
U.S. negotiators are seeking policies that will harm the U.S. technology industry and citizens across the globe. Three Strikes/ Graduated Response is the top priority of the entertainment industry... The ACTA text appears to leave the door open for major changes to the existing national Internet intermediary liability regimes that have been the global status quo since the mid 1990s, and which have underpinned both tremendous Internet innovation, and citizens' online freedom of expression and the rich world of user generated content that we take for granted today.
European citizens should also be concerned and indignant. As reported, the ACTA Internet provisions would also appear to be inconsistent with the EU eCommerce Directive and existing national law...
Are international treaties governing Internet content and intellectual property even necessary? Insofar as they fly in the face of normative cultural practices and contradict or tighten existing national laws, we find these suggested measures inflexible and unrealistic. But whether they become reality and shape the landscape of the Internet-to-come remains to be seen.