Wikileaks, known for stirring up controversy, leaked secret plans by the U.S. government to enter into a far-reaching new internet monitoring and regulation act known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) with Japan, the European Commission, and Switzerland. The new act was known in some circles as a "Pirate Bay killer", referring to the Swedish torrent site The Pirate Bay, as the new act criminalized nonprofit "facilitation of copyright infringement". However, the bill also included provisions which would make many commonly used privacy tools illegal and would demand that ISPs provide the government with complete user histories.
Amid public outcry in the U.S. and Europe, a new country is looking to get into the fray. News site Canada.com reports on details of the act's effects on another partner nation, Canada. International Trade Minister David Emerson announced in October that Canada will participate in ACTA. Canadian officials view the act as a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of sorts, this time focusing on copyright instead of trade.
Additional ramifications of the deal of interest to American and Canadian citizens are the new restrictions on travel. The new act will make border agents essentially "copyright regulators". They will be authorized under current provisions to search those crossing for illegal copyright materials. Laptops, iPods and even cellular phones are among the devices that would be searched for illegal content.
If they found infringed content such as ripped copies of DVDs or CDs they could detain the person. The penalties are still being ironed out, but a fine for any materials found is planned. It would be at the discretion of the border agents to determine what infringement is and what isn't. Under the new act, even legally copied DVDs or CDs would be open to scrutiny.
David Fewer, staff counsel at the University of Ottawa's Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic is very alarmed at this development. He states, "If Hollywood could order intellectual property laws for Christmas what would they look like? This is pretty close. The process on ACTA so far has been cloak and dagger. This certainly raises concerns."
The leaked ACTA documents indicate that the new agreement marks a dramatic departure from previous anti-infringement efforts in that it authorizes government action against suspected infringers without any request from the copyright holders. In the past the copyright holders, or organizations that represented them such as the RIAA or IFPI took action again infringers. The new act gives government officials "authority to take action against infringers", essentially making them a government RIAA of sorts.
For some users the new act may be "bye bye" to their iPod or laptop. Under the new act the border agents could destroy any devices found to hold copyright content that is deemed infringed.
The new agreement states that it’s oriented towards increased "civil enforcement" measures. And don't plan on having a lawyer present; the act includes "authority to order ex parte searches" (searches without a lawyer present) and "and other preliminary measures".
At Canada's borders, agents already search for child pornography. The new act would expand the frequency of these searches and put iPods, computer discs, and laptops under the search auspices of the border patrol.
Fewer takes issue to the secrecy in the international community surrounding the act. He states, "We knew this existed, we filed an Access to Information request for this but all it provided us with was the title. All the rest of it was blacked out. Those negotiations can take place behind closed doors. At the end of the day we may be provided with something that has been negotiated which is a `fait accompli' in which civil society gets no opportunity to critique it."
The new act has also been criticized as it operates outside other international trade organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or the United Nations. Under the agreement a governing council consisting of representatives from member nations would be created and make policy decisions.
Michael Geist, Canada research chair of Internet and E-commerce law at the University of Ottawa and expert on Canadian copyright law says that the government's behind doors behavior is quite ominous. He states, "That's what happens when you conduct all of this behind closed doors. The lack of consultation, the secrecy behind it and the speculation that this will be concluded within a matter of months without any real public input is deeply troubling"
Fewer and Geist both agree though, that once the act is adopted it will be difficult to back out. If Canada does not comply, it may face big financial penalties as well, similar to those imposed during the Softwood Lumber trade dispute.
The final decision on the acts adoption is believed to be made at the upcoming G-8 international summit in July 2008. The agreement marks the most dramatic piece of international law enforcement and copyright to date. If adopted it will truly transform the electronics world and touch the lives of many citizens.