After 11 rounds of international negotiations, the final text of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has overcome its biggest hurdle yet when it was welcomed as a step in the right direction by the European Parliament, which voted 331-294, with 11 members abstaining, to approve the measure.
Although the Parliament has called for some reassurances from the European Commission, the vote means that in principle the final legal text can now be agreed to by the Commission at a meeting in Sydney from November 30 to December 3. Under the Lisbon Treaty, Members of the European Parliament were required to give their consent to the measure and there were fears right up until the vote that they might halt the deal altogether.
The relatively high vote against represents the MEPs who were angry at being kept in the dark for much of the negotiating period. However, many MEPs were appeased when transparency improved following their complaints.
But Parliament nonetheless called on the European Commission to confirm that it will have no impact on basic freedoms and existing European Union legislation, particularly as "EU law is already considerably more advanced than the current international standards."
The ACTA agreement has been mired in controversy from the beginning due to secrecy imposed by the US and to worries that it may not uphold EU data privacy rules. The deal seeks to enforce intellectual property rights and combat online piracy and illegal software.
The most controversial paragraph in the final text leaves the door open for countries to introduce the so-called three strikes rule. This would cut Internet users off if they download copyright material as national authorities would be able to order ISPs to disclose personal information about customers.
The text has been somewhat watered down from the original wording, which said that parties "shall" provide laws to demand information from ISPs. But sources close to the negotiations said that ACTA can be seen as suggesting "what is considered best practice," which may be interpreted as encouraging countries to introduce draconian measures such as the so-called three strikes rule.
The proposed agreement would also place sanctions against any device or software that is marketed as a means of circumventing access controls such as encryption or scrambling that are designed to prevent copying. It also requires legal measures against knowingly using such technology.
Concerned MEPs had warned they would not give the agreement their approval if they didn't have enough time to read the text. The final text of the ACTA agreement was only published by the US State Department on November 15.
The agreement as it stands would not require any change in EU legislation, but could have an impact on other parties whose laws on intellectual property are less well defined.
The countries involved in the negotiations are Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, Mexico, the US and the EU. Critics question the effectiveness of an agreement that does not include China, the source of almost 65 percent of all cases of counterfeit goods seized by EU customs in 2009.