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Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) Referred to the European Court of Justice for Rights Breaches

The European Commission (EC) announced on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 that it was referring the ACTA anti-piracy treaty to the European Union’s top court.  The Court of Justice will be asked to assess whether ACTA is incompatible with the European Union’s (EU) fundamental rights and freedoms.

ACTA, a treaty aimed at harmonizing copyright enforcement globally, has been mired in controversy from its inception not least since its formulation has taken place behind closed doors.  Its drafters say it is needed to harmonize international standards to protect the rights of those who produce music, movies, pharmaceuticals, fashion goods, and a range of other products that often fall victim to piracy and intellectual property theft.  Critics fear it would introduce more online censorship and increased surveillance of Internet users. (See EDUCAUSE blog post of October 4, 2011 for further information about the implications for higher education.)

The treaty has been questioned by members of the European Parliament, especially after numerous anti-ACTA public demonstrations have taken place in a variety of member countries.  European Parliament President Martin Schulz has said, "I don't find it good in its current form."  He went on to say that the necessary balance between copyright protection and the individual rights of Internet users "is only very inadequately anchored in this agreement."

The European Commission has been a strong supporter of the ACTA agreement.  The EU and many member states signed ACTA on January 26, 2012 in Tokyo.  Although the European Council unanimously approved ACTA in December, for the EU to be a party to the treaty, all 27 member countries would have to formally ratify it.  So far the ACTA agreement has been signed by 22 EU member states, but several countries including Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have backed away (at least temporarily) from ratifying the agreement following the recent protests.  The U.S. has signed the agreement; others include Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea.  Mexico and Switzerland participated in the negotiations but have not yet signed.

The Commission hopes that a favorable ruling from the high court will facilitate passage by rebutting critics' charges that ACTA threatens Internet freedom.  However, the decision to seek a judicial opinion could also further delay consideration of the treaty, giving opponents more time to organize against it.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report on this issue.