The European Union signed up to the controversial Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on Thursday despite widespread opposition, particularly in Poland, where people took to the streets in protest.
The agreement was officially signed in Tokyo by 22 European member states. Cyprus, Estonia, Slovakia, Germany and the Netherlands did not sign, but committed to do so in the near future, according to the European Parliament's Green party.
The agreement seeks to enforce intellectual property rights and combat online piracy and illegal software. But opponents of ACTA claim it goes far beyond the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) legislation in the US, and encourages ISPs to police the internet without any legal safeguards. SOPA is being revised after receiving broad criticism.
The ACTA agreement meanwhile has been mired in controversy from the beginning due to secrecy imposed by the US, and worries that it may not uphold EU rules on data privacy. The most controversial paragraph in the final text leaves the door open for countries to introduce the so-called three strikes rule, which would require Internet users to be cut off if they continue to download copyright material after receiving two warnings, as national authorities would be able to order ISPs to disclose personal information about customers.
Although the agreement has been signed, it still has to go through a ratification procedure in the EU. But now, shortly after SOPA sponsors succumbed to pressure to revise the bill, digital rights groups and so-called hacktivists are pushing hard for the European Parliament to reject ACTA.
More than 10,000 people have taken to Poland's streets to protest the signing of the international treaty while the Polish branch of hacker collective Anonymous has attacked Polish government websites, including the prime minister's office, leaving several sites paralysed.
"In the last few days, we have seen encouraging protest by Polish and other EU citizens, who are rightly concerned with the effect of ACTA on freedom of expression," said Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson for citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net. "This important movement will further build up. Our governments are bypassing democratic processes to impose draconian repressive measures."
There has also been widespread criticism of ACTA within the Parliament. Pirate Party parliamentarian Christian Engstrom accused Polish Minister of Digitisation Michal Boni of lying to the Polish people in order to get ACTA signed. "Unfortunately, it appears that the Polish minister does not shy away from telling his citizens blatant lies, in order to get the controversial ACTA agreement signed," he said on Wednesday.
According to news site Global Voices, Boni said it was too late to back out of the agreement because all the other European countries had signed, but at the time this was not the case. "It is apparent that the game of telling EU citizens whatever lies may be necessary to get the ACTA agreement signed has begun," Engstrom warned.
Green Member of the European Parliament, Ska Keller was also critical of the deal: "ACTA is wrong and should be rejected. The last word has not yet been spoken however: the European Parliament and national parliaments will now have their say as part of the ratification process."
Parliament's legal affairs, development, civil liberties and industry committees will give their opinions on the treaty in the coming weeks. These will be considered by the Parliament's International Trade Committee when it makes its final report to Parliament on whether to accept or reject ACTA. Finally the deal will go before a vote by all of Parliament.
Outside the EU, the agreement has so far been signed by the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea.