march to Prague Castle
Hundreds braved below-freezing temperatures Feb. 2 to march to Prague Castle in protest of the country's signing of the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

Nečas shelves ACTA ratification

Demonstrations, public pressure oppose global copyright regime

The Nečas government has postponed voting on a controversial trade agreement that seeks to bolster trans-border enforcement of copyright laws in the wake of series of protests nationwide that mirrored growing opposition across the globe.

At issue is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which the Czech Republic signed in January, but which still must be ratified by Parliament. The document has sparked widespread international opposition, with critics charging its vague wording could serve as a Trojan horse for restricting Internet freedoms. More specifically, they fear the deal could hold websites criminally liable for the actions of users and lead to border checks of content on laptop or tablet computers.

It is one of several such attempts to regulate the Internet that have sparked anger in recent months. A broad swath of organizations has voiced displeasure at the content of ACTA, including Doctors Without Borders, which worries the definitions of intellectual property could serve to hinder the distribution of life-saving generic drugs in the developing world.

“By no means would the government admit a situation where civic freedoms and free access to information would be threatened,” Nečas said Feb. 6, the same day the Anonymous hacker group tapped into the website of his Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and released data on 30,000 party members.

“Your arrogant statement with which you are trying to cover your own incapability to protect your IT system has inspired us to another attack,” the hacker group wrote. “How do you want to lead this country and represent us, citizens, in the administration of public affairs if you are not able to manage such an elementary problem?”

While ACTA opponents take issue with the international copyright enforcement regime it would spawn, it is perhaps the relative secrecy with which the agreement was drafted that has prompted the biggest outcry. The European Union’s ACTA rapporteur resigned his post Jan. 26, calling the agreement “problematic” and capable of inflicting “major consequences” on citizens’ lives. French MEP Kadir Arif stepped down, citing a flawed, undemocratic process that drafted the agreement.

“I want to denounce in the strongest possible manner the entire process that led to the signature of this agreement: no inclusion of civil society organizations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given [and] exclusion of the European Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly,” he said.

“I have faced never-before-seen maneuvers from the right wing of this Parliament to impose a rushed calendar before public opinion could be alerted.”

Indeed, preliminary ACTA negotiations first came to public light some two years after a draft memorandum was published by WikiLeaks in May 2008, already two years after discussions had begun.

Protesters against ACTA demonstrated in Prague, with hundreds braving below-freezing temperatures to march from the Malostranská metro station to Prague Castle Feb. 2. Protests continued elsewhere across the country Feb. 4 with some 500 people turning out in Brno amid signs that read “A copy is not theft,” and “Our democracy is an illusion of freedom.” Another protest is slated for Feb. 11 at 2 p.m., beginning on Old Town Square, which will coincide with demonstrations in other countries.

“We are here to show that the people who oppose ACTA are not just fictional people sitting on the Internet and clicking a mouse, but that there are real faces behind them,” said Czech Pirate Party Chairman Ivan Bartoš at the Feb. 2 protest.

The feeling that the government had signed onto and conducted ACTA negotiations in secret was widespread at the protest.

“I came here because this protest is not only about freedom of the Internet, but it is about our would-be democratic government negotiating matters that affect some 10 million people behind our backs,” said a protester named Milan. “What is this? This is not democracy.”

The controversial document is the latest flashpoint in a debate over intellectual property rights and the Internet and comes just weeks after a popular movement helped delay voting on similar changes to domestic law in the United States. Within days of a demonstrative shutdown by prominent websites like Wikipedia Jan. 18, a pair of bills in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate had been shelved. Those proposed laws, like ACTA, had their strongest advocates in the film and music industries, but the marshalling of public opposition by large tech firms also raised questions about whether it was the public or merely the lobbying power of other business interests that sidetracked the laws.

“It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users and arm them with misinformation,” a statement from the Recording Industry Association of America read.

In delaying the ratification process Feb. 6, Nečas followed in the footsteps of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who had made a similar decision Feb. 2, after a rash of protests in his country.

“I want to emphasize that no border checks of laptops, no monitoring of Internet users, no filtrations or similar things have ever been threatened in the Czech Republic,” Nečas said. “No such threat has ever existed for a single moment.”

Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States signed ACTA in October 2011, while the European Union and 22 members – with Cyprus, Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia and Slovakia abstaining – signed Jan. 26. No country has yet ratified the agreement in full. In Europe, both the European Parliament and national parliaments must sign off.

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