RP12: ‘ACTA Makes It Very Dangerous To Be Online’

By David Knight |

By David Knight at re:publica

The fight against ACTA was back in the spotlight at re:publica on Wednesday as British journalist Glyn Moody gave a talk on why the proposed international agreement is such a threat to open data. And the tech veteran served up some fighting talk as he impressed the watching audience, at one point declaring: “ACTA makes it very, very dangerous to be online.”

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is a proposed international treaty to establish a legal framework for combatting copyright infringement, but it has proved highly controversial amid fears it will seriously impinge on online freedoms.

A protest movement which spread across Europe earlier this year started in Poland, but Moody was quick to praise Germany, and Berlin in particular, for taking the lead in fighting back against ACTA. He began his talk with a brief history of copyright over the last 300 years, pointing out that it had become progressively more stringent – the current legislature in the US, passed in 1998, means a piece of work won’t enter the public domain until 70 years after its creator’s death.

This in turn means people cannot connect with contemporary creations. “We are cut off from our culture,” he said.

With the advent of the Internet things became more complicated, with copyright laws originally designed for the public as consumers not creators – yet the 100 million plus blogs as well as billions of Tumblr posts are just the tip of the iceberg when it come to online content. The initial reaction was to introduce DRM software to prevent copying, but, according to Moody, it devalues content in that it only needs to be broken once to be broken forever.

And so in recent times, the likes of ACTA, SOPA in the US and the Trans-Pacific Partnership have been at the forefront of attempts to switch from computer code to legal code when it comes to protecting copyright.

In ACTA, this would include a civil damages section to allow people to be taken to court, using the commonly-derided assumption that every copy existing online is costing copyright owners the retail price. The backdoor nature of the agreement would mean that all parties would not even need to be present for a judge to take action.

And the potential criminal damages are also of extreme concern – the phrase ‘cases of piracy on a commercial scale’ has a very vague definition, including anyone benefitting directly or indirectly, and Moody argued: “Potentially, this framing of criminal damages would be also applicable to just people swapping files online because there’s bound to be some benefit for them at some point. So this is very badly worded; probably intentionally.”

There would also be criminal measures taken for aiding and abetting such acts, e.g. by linking to a site. Moody slammed such vague terminology: “ACTA basically makes it very, very dangerous to be online. You just do not know what you might do that could lead to problems.”

And there’s more – regarding the protections which ACTA does give to ordinary people, the pertinent clause includes the phrase ‘fair process,’ a term which has no specific legal meaning and which is “clearly a bad faith attempt to undermine the protections ACTA has.”

ISPs, meanwhile, are run as businesses, and in the face of huge fines for breaking the rules laid out by ACTA would have no choice but to hand over your details.

Open data is about expanding what can be shared, while ACTA is about restricting what can be shared. Moody’s zero sum is that more copyright means less public domain: “We often hear about copyright theft… but what I like to say is that real copyright theft is of the public domain.”

There is a false assumption that increased content ownership is better – you just have to look at open source projects like Wikipedia to see the fallacy of that, Moody said.

Despite all the doom and gloom, however, he did end on a bright note: “I hope that 2012 will also go down in history as the year of peak copyright, when finally we started to pull copyright back.”