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ACTA ‘death’ vote set for Wednesday: Everything you need to know

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Despite last-ditch efforts by supporters of the controversial Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) to delay the proceedings, the European Parliament is still scheduled to vote on the international treaty on Wednesday, July 4. Earlier this year, ACTA generated a wave of protests in cities across Europe and around the world, as governments consider whether or not to ratify the agreement, and put in place the intellectual property protection laws it requires. With the vote just hours away, here’s a brief rundown of everything you need to know about ACTA right now.

ACTA: The basics

ACTA is an international trade agreement (known as an “executive agreement” in the U.S. and a “treaty” outside the U.S.) that seeks to establish robust protections for intellectual property, including digital goods (like music and movies), as well as physical goods (like knock-off Gucci handbags or medicine), around the world. Websites could be blocked, as could the shipment of certain goods (like generic pharmaceuticals). The main focus of ACTA is on large-scale intellectual property theft, according to its proponents, and would impose fines, and possibly even imprisonment, on violators.

ACTA would also establish an “ACTA commission” that would oversee the imposition of intellectual property regulations in participating countries, as well as the enforcement of those laws.

Read the full text of ACTA here (pdf). For a detailed account of the ACTA drama in the EU over the past few months, I highly recommend reading Computerworld UK reporter Glyn Moody’s “ACTA Update” series.

The European Parliament vote on ACTA will take place on Wednesday at 6am EST/10am GMT.

Arguments for ACTA

As mentioned, proponents of ACTA argue that the treaty would focus its attention on “commercial-scale” copyright infringement, not on individuals. (In other words, average citizens don’t need to worry about it — so supporters say.) They also say it would be good for EU citizens because it would provide protections for European intellectual properties, which is good for businesses and the economy.

Arguments against ACTA

From the beginning, ACTA rubbed people the wrong way due to the intense secrecy surrounding the treaty, and the complete lack of public input into its contents. Similar to the criticisms of SOPA and PIPA — anti-piracy legislation proposed, then shot down, here in the U.S. earlier this year — ACTA opponents warn that the treaty would threaten freedom of speech and other civil liberties, dangerously disrupt the open nature of the Web, hamper business innovation, thwart consumer privacy, and trample human rights.

ACTA opponents also say that the phrase “commercial-scale” copyright infringement is too vague, thus making it ripe for abuse.

Who supports ACTA

The United States government is the most ardent proponent of ACTA — as is the U.S. entertainment industry — but so far a total of 31 countries have signed ACTA, including 22 of 27 EU member states. Aside from the US, signatory countries outside the EU include Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Morocco, and New Zealand.

Just because these countries have signed ACTA does not necessarily mean it goes into effect. In the EU, especially, the European Parliament, as well as the European Commission and  European Council, must all approve ACTA for it to be ratified. If these groups do not all vote in favor of ACTA implementation, then the treaty will not be adopted by EU countries.

In the European Parliament specifically, the lone group that (weakly) supports the treaty is the European People’s Party (EPP), a right-of-center coalition of conservative parties that makes up the largest portion of the in the European Parliament. In a tweet posted Monday, the EPP announced that it would request during today’s debate on the treaty that the Parliament delay its vote on ACTA until after the European Court of Justice (EJC) rules on “whether ACTA is incompatible — in any way — with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms.” (A decision from the EJC could take as much as a year.) That request was rejected, and the vote will still happen Wednesday.

Who opposes ACTA

In light of wide-spread protests against ACTA in Europe, a number of key countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and — most importantly — Germany and Poland, have all either halted the ratification process or refused to sign ACTA in the first place.

Furthermore, ACTA has been rejected by all five parliamentary committees that debated the treaty, including the powerful International Trade Committee (INTA), which voted last month to recommend that the full European Parliament vote against ACTA.

ACTA is opposed by four of the five major voting blocks in the European Parliament, including the Democrats, the Socialists, the Greens, and the Liberals. Even some MEPs who are part of the EPP oppose the treaty, which will likely split the coalition’s vote.

Finally, the people of Europe appear overwhelmingly opposed ACTA. In January and February, hundreds of thousands of Europeans in cities around the continent took to the streets in protest of the treaty. And millions more have signed petitions voicing their opposition to ACTA.

What happens if the European Parliament rejects ACTA on Wednesday

If a majority of MEPs vote against ACTA — and it’s all but certain that they will — the the treaty will not be ratified by the EU, though other signatory countries could still ratify ACTA and create laws that would put them in accordance with the treaty’s mandates. Without Europe, however, ACTA’s power wold be greatly reduced.

A vote against ACTA by the European Parliament will not likely be the end of the story either. Late last month EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht announced that he will simply wait to see whether the EJC rules in favor of ACTA’s legality in the EU and, if it does, submit the treaty to the European Parlieament a second time, thus starting the whole process over again.