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Occupy this: 5 Internet regulations we need to destroy

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On January 18, millions of concerned Internet citizens and companies banded together to successfully combat the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “PROTECT IP Act” (PIPA), pieces of legislation that many believe could annihilate the Web as we know it. Thanks to this mass effort, those bills are now political poison, and have been shoved off the congressional agenda indefinitely.

Unfortunately, the victory over SOPA and PIPA revealed a cumbersome truth: The fight for a free and open Internet has only just begun, and will likely never end. Right this second, there are a number of potentially dangerous efforts, from governments around the globe, that could be as detrimental to our online world as SOPA and PIPA may have been (or could be in the future). And while many of these efforts specifically target foreign countries, the connected nature of the Internet means they concern us all. Here is a brief rundown of those efforts, and what you can do to push back.

Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)

What it is: ACTA is a multi-lateral trade agreement, already signed by 31 governmental bodies from around that world (including the US, the European Union and 22 member states, Japan, Australia, and Canada, among others) that seeks to create international standards for the enforcement of intellectual property rights (in other words: broaden and expand them).

The agreement, which targets counterfeit goods, generic medicine, and copyright-protected online content, also creates an entirely new governing body, an “ACTA committee,” tasked with overseeing the implementation of intellectual property laws.   

Why it’s a problem: The potential dangers of ACTA reach far and wide. But here are the primary points of contention: First, ACTA was negotiated in secret, meaning it “bypassed checks and balances of existing international IP norm-setting bodies [i.e. the World Trade Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the United Nations], without any meaningful input from national parliaments, policymakers, or their citizens,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The lack of transparency surrounding the ACTA negotiations led Kader Arif, member of the European Parliament and appointed rapporteur, to quit on Tuesday in protest.

Second, ACTA gives nations’ custom authorities the power to confiscate physical or digital goods they believe are in violation of intellectual property law at their borders, even if the final destination of those goods is not the country where they are detained. In addition, copyrights holders themselves can request that border agents confiscate certain goods. This is particularly troublesome for the distribution of generic pharmaceutical drugs, such as medicine for HIV, to developing nations.

“The problem with ACTA is that, by focusing on the fight against violation of intellectual property rights in general, it treats a generic drug just as a counterfeited drug,” said Arif in an interview with the Guardian. “This means the patent holder can stop the shipping of the drugs to a developing country, seize the cargo and even order the destruction of the drugs as a preventive measure.”

Third, ACTA creates the overwhelming incentive for countries to enact stricter intellectual property laws, so that they are in accordance with international standards (as defined by ACTA itself). While pushing countries to create more severe intellectual property laws, ACTA does not create any incentive for the implementation of safety valves, like fair use or public domain (both of which exist in the US). Because of this, critics fear ACTA could usher in unprecedented limits on free speech, as more an more countries pass harsher and harsher intellectual property regulations.

Fourth: In the US, ACTA was signed as an “executive agreement,” not a “treaty.” This distinction allowed President Obama to sign ACTA without ratification by the Senate. The White House asserts that this means that, if ACTA becomes a binding part of international law (more on that later), then the US can simply ignore it. But a number of constitutional scholars (pdf), as well as Rep. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and other members of Congress, have questioned the constitutionality of this action. And many critics worry that by labeling ACTA an “executive agreement,” it sets a precedent for other treaties to fly under the radar of congressional scrutiny, and thus not be subjected to the disinfecting light of democratic transparency.

As you may have gathered, ACTA is a complex behemoth. And the list above is, by no means, complete; there are many more points of contention available in the fine print. To read more details about the problems surrounding ACTA see here, here, and here.

What you can do about it: While the text of ACTA is now set it stone, the treaty (aka executive agreement) must now be ratified through a vote by the European Parliament, which would put into full effect. If the European Parliament votes against ACTA, it could stop the treaty in its tracks. The best way to help ensure this outcome is to contact Members of the European Parliament. For instructions about how to do this properly, see here, here, and here.

Read the full text of ACTA here: pdf.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP or TPPA)

What it is: Like ACTA, TPP is a trade agreement (unlike SOPA and PIPA, which are pieces of legislation) between the US and a variety of countries around the world, including New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam. Also like ACTA, intense secrecy surrounds the agreement, which means very little information about the exact contents of TPP are known to the public. What we do know — based on a copy of the intellectual property rights chapter of TPP, which was leaked last March — is that TPP would require signatories to adopt copyright laws that are equal to, or go beyond, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA).

While intellectual property regulation is a large part of TPP, the agreement also covers other aspects of international trade, including dairy and beef production, and other agricultural issues.

Why it’s a problem: The foremost problem with TPP is that its details and negotiations are hidden from the public — the very people who will have to live under the rules outlined in the agreement. Second, TPP would force countries to adopt the same troublesome intellectual property laws that exist in the US, including criminal charges for infringers, Internet service provider (ISP) liability, full disconnection for repeat infringers, and penalties for circumventing “digital locks” (i.e. DRM). In many cases, this would require countries to re-write their copyright laws to match — or exceed — the laws of the US, without also including safe guards like fair use. That is to say, it removes individual nations’ abilities to make their own decisions about which copyright laws to adopt by forcing them to legislate above a threshold set by the US.

Other known problems with TPP include mandatory criminal sanctions for the reproduction of copyrighted works for non-commercial purposes, and the extension of copyright to the life of a creator plus 70 years after his/her death, and either 95 years after publication, or 120 years after creation, of corporate-owned copyrights.

What you can do about it: Unfortunately, there are far too few options for combating TPP. One highly-effective tactic is to contact your representatives, and demand transparency on TPP. The EFF has created a simple-to-use “Action alert,” which makes doing so fast and easy. (Click here to do so.) And, as always, staying informed about TPP is key. See more details about TPP here, here, here, and here.

Read the leaked TPP chapter on intellectual property here: pdf.

Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11 – Canada)

What it is: The Copyright Modernization Act, known widely as Bill C-11 (or just C-11), is Canada’s most recent piece of copyright legislation. The current text of C-11 is, for the moment, fairly mild, especially when compared to legislation like SOPA and PIPA. Positive parts of the bill include expansion of fair use, a provision that protects user-generated content, and other the expansion of consumer rights. Unfortunately, the music industry and other copyright maximalists are pushing to add more extreme measures to the bill.

Why it’s a problem: At present, the most contentious part of C-11 includes its provisions concerning digital locks, like DRM, which critics believe will thwart consumer rights protections, and castrate fair use policies. As mentioned, the music industry is currently lobbying Canada’s parliament to add some of the most problematic portions of SOPA/PIPA into C-11, including blocking websites accused of copyright infringement, and the targeting of any website that “engages in, enables, or facilitates” copyright infringement, which could include legitimate websites like YouTube. As with SOPA/PIPA, critics worry that the addition of these provisions could restrict free speech, and stifle innovation online due to the fear of lawsuits.

What you can do about it: The best way to fight C-11, or to push back against the music industry’s efforts to turn the bill into Canada’s SOPA, is to contact your MP. (This applies to Canadians only, sorry.) To find out who your representative is, click here. Remember, C-11 is still very much up in the air, and a nearly-identical bill was defeated in the recent past.

Canadians can also sign the variety of petitions against C-11, two of which are available here and here.

Read the full text of C-11 here.

S.I. No. 337/2011 — European Communities (Copyrights and Related Rights) Regulations 2011 (“Ireland’s SOPA”)

What it is: S.I. No. 337/2011, more commonly known as “Ireland’s SOPA,” is a piece of legislation that would allow Irish courts to require ISPs to fully block allegedly infringing sites (like The Pirate Bay). According to some interpretations, court orders could also be brought against a cornucopia of other “intermediaries,” including social networks, hosting providers, video hosting sites (like YouTube or Vimeo), or any site where infringing content is posted — even if those posting the content reside outside Ireland.

Why it’s a problem: Other than the details above — which are nearly identical to some of the most contentious parts of SOPA/PIPA (thus, “Ireland’s SOPA”) — the biggest problem is that the legislation is set to be enacted without any vote by the Irish Parliament. Instead, the law will be enacted by a “statutory instrument,” which can be carried out solely by Ireland’s junior minister, Sean Sherlock. In other words: The people have almost no say in whether or not this piece of legislation becomes law.

What you can do about it:  The best way to fight back is to contact Sherlock (Twitter, email: sean.sherlock@oir.ie), senior minister Richard Bruton (email: minister@deti.ie), and your local TD (an Irish representative in Parliament). According to Irish legal expert TJ McIntyre, non-Irish citizens should also contact Sherlock, and tell him that the enactment of this bill lowers the world’s opinion of Ireland, and makes it a less attractive place to start an Internet business. Concerned citizens can also visit StopSOPAIreland.com, and sign their petition.

Read the full text of “Ireland’s SOPA” here.

Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (PCIP or HR 1981)

What it is: Introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) — the chief sponsor of SOPA —  last May, HR 1981 aims to curb the distribution of child pornography, and increases the possible penalties for doing so. It does this by amending “the federal criminal code to prohibit knowingly conducting in interstate or foreign commerce a financial transaction that will facilitate access to, or the possession of, child pornography,” according to the official summary of the bill. It also imposes “a fine and/or prison term of up to 20 years” for anyone found in possession of child pornography that depicts children under the age of 12. HR 1981 has already passed through the House Judiciary Committee (of which Rep. Smith is chairman), and currently has 39 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

Why it’s a problem: If passed into law, HR 1981 would require ISPs to store which IP addresses they assign to every customer for a minimum of one year. The legislation also allows law enforcement authorities to have access to the IP data of anyone who is charged with any crime whatsoever — not just those charged with crimes related to child pornography. And all the police have to do to access this information is ask for it. No probable cause, no search warrant. Nothing. With a warrant, authorities can also gain access to all information an ISP has on file for an individual customer, including name, address, telephone number, and credit or debit card numbers used to pay for Internet services, as outlined in Section 2703 in title 18 of US Code.

In many ways, this is the most problematic government effort on this list, as it targets all Internet users in a very real, very specific way. The other actions listed above have serious problems, though many of them still wallow in the realm of speculation. HR 1981 is explicit in the ways in which it shreds individual privacy.

What you can do about it: First, contact your representative, and tell them you firmly oppose HR 1981, and will not vote for them in upcoming elections if they support the bill. (Find and contact your representative here.) It is especially important for voters whose representatives are listed as co-sponsors of the bill express their opposition. (Here is a list of HR 1981 co-sponsors.)

Second, just as SOPA had a companion bill in the Senate, so does HR 1981, in the form of S. 1308, which was introduced by Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT). At present, S. 1308 has only four co-sponsors, but it is equally important to keep pressure on the Senate to not let this legislation gain any more traction. (Find contact information for your senators here.)

Finally, there are a number of organizations helping to push back against HR 1981. On Thursday, Demand Progress, one of the public advocacy groups instrumental in the fight against SOPA and PIPA, launched a petition against HR 1981, which more than 70,000 people have already signed. Add your name here.

Read the full text of HR 1981 here: pdf.

[Image via alekup/Shutterstock] Corrections and clarification made to HR 1981 section.

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