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European Commission suspends ACTA ratification

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The European Commission has put a halt on efforts to ratify the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) (PDF), referring it instead to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on whether the treaty is compatible with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms—including data protection, right to property, and freedom of expression.

“I believe the European Commission has a responsibility to provide our parliamentary representatives and the public at large with the most detailed and accurate information available,” said EC commissioner Karel De Gucht, in a statement. “So, a referral will allow for Europe’s top court to independently clarify the legality of this agreement.”

ACTA is an international agreement intended to set standards for enforcement of intellectual property rights. Largely developed in secret, ACTA is intended to target everything from counterfeit fashion and medicines to software and digital content piracy.

Although the European Commission has already approved ACTA (22 EU members signed on to the treaty on January 26th in Tokyo) and passed it along to member states’ governments for ratification, the decision to refer the treaty to Europe’s highest court seems to be an overt acknowledgement that the agreement has become a political hot potato. Protestors have taken to the streets in several European capitals over the proposed agreement, claiming the treaty would stifle free speech and free access to information. Similarly, members of the European Parliament have questioned the treaty, and some countries—most notably Denmark and Germany—have already started withdrawing their support for the agreement.

Mr. De Gucht emphasized that debate about ACTA should be based on facts, and hopes that the attention of the Court of Justice will “cut through the fog” surrounding the treaty and its provisions. “ACTA will change nothing about how we use the Internet and social Web sites today,” he said.” ACTA will not censor websites or shut them down; ACTA will not hinder freedom of the internet or freedom of speech.”

Nonetheless, ACTA faces opposition and skepticism from a number of high-profile EU officials, including EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.

“Copyright protection can never be a justification for eliminating freedom of expression or freedom of information,” Reding wrote in a statement (PDF). “We need to find new, more modern and more effective ways in Europe to protect artistic creations that take account of technological developments and the freedoms of the Internet.”

ACTA is scheduled to be debated by the European Parliament in June.