Thursday, 26 January 2012

Europe’s SOPA?

The European Parliament’s website has been shut down by hackers today, allegedly in a denial-of-service attack from Anonymous in protest of imminent anti-piracy legislation restricting internet freedom. But as the IT folks in parliament scramble to fix the problem, the functionaries are sitting around scratching their heads in confusion. Did we pass internet piracy legislation?

Their confusion is warranted. By all accounts the EU has been on the internet-freedom-lovers side during this debate. During the fallout from the Wikipedia ‘blackout’ last week, US politicians weren’t the only ones beating a path to the door to distance themselves from the now toxic SOPA legislation on internet piracy. On Friday the EU’s Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes tweeted that she was “glad the tide is turning on #SOPA,” adding “speeding is illegal too: but you don't put speed bumps on the motorway”.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström also tweeted against the US legislation, noting that ‘sopa’ in Swedish means garbage. Notably, no public statements about the US anti-piracy bills had been made before the Wikipedia blackout. It’s quite unusual for the EU to make comments about US legislation. But such was the effect of the blackout – which was, after all, global (Eurocrats felt quite helpless without Wikipedia last week!), that even politicians not involved in US lawmaking felt the need to make a statement about it.

Kroes was eager to point out last week that there is no EU version of SOPA being considered. And she is right. But there is an international treaty which some internet freedom advocates say is just as bad as SOPA, and it is heading toward a speedy passage in the EU. It is called ACTA, or the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

ACTA was originally forged between the United States and Japan, and other countries can join voluntarily. It seeks to create an international body outside the WTO or the World Intellectual Property Associaiton (WIPO) establishing a legal framework for copyright violations, including those that occur on the internet. So far it has been signed by the US, Japan, Australia, Canada, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea.

Today the European Commission and all 27 member states signed the treaty. But the treaty must still be approved by the European Parliament. Hence the denial-of-service attack on the Parliament today. Some are saying it’s a bit strange for Anonymous to be going after the Parliament when it was the Commission and the Council who signed the treaty today, and perhaps it reflects a lack of knowledge from the hackers on how the EU works. It is unclear at this stage whether the hackers were confused and thought the EU parliament had just signed the treaty, or if they intend this as a warning to MEPs to vote against this treaty in June.

The European Parliament doesn’t get to play a pivotal role in European lawmaking all that often, so the fact that it is now up to them whether the world’s largest common market will sign up to this treaty will likely be sending MEPs’ heads spinning with sudden feelings of consequentiality.

But MEPs cannot be swayed only by, as some have termed them, “internet thugs”. They need to find out, is ACTA really as bad as the internet freedom advocates are saying? I’m no expert, so here’s a summary of the criticism of the treaty. From what I can gather the MEPs don’t seem to have paid a lot of attention to this until now. But they did pass a resolution in 2010 during the early stages of ACTA negotiations saying that it must respect freedom of expression and right to privacy. So they’ve already signalled they will be a sceptical audience. The original rapporteur appointed to guide this legislation through the parliament quit in protest after saying he was being pressured by the centre-right EPP MEPs to rush the legislation through "before public opinion could be alerted."

Privately parliament staffers working on the issue have told me it's just a question of monstrously horrible timing. The 26 January signing date has been planned for months, and it just bad luck that it happens to come a week after the SOPA protest, giving media hacks like myself an easy peg to try to tie the two together.

The Commission realised last week that the timing of this signing was going to look bad, I'm told, but there was no way to change the date. They've apparently been desperate to avoid ACTA getting the SOPA treatment. Today’s denial-of-service attack will certainly alarm them – but I doubt it’s going to get enough media attention to get them really scared. It would take another Wikipedia blackout to really frighten them.

The Commission has been keen to portray itself as a protector of online privacy and internet freedom, as opposed to the US government. Just yesterday they proposed an overhaul of data protection rules that will force internet companies to allow users to opt out of data collection. It comes the same week that Google announced it will now force users to accept having their details stored across its sites.

Last week the Commission even released a Q&A about why ACTA is not SOPA. But if the heat gets too intense, they may back off of their support (for instance by not fighting a European Parliament rejection of the treaty). This Commission is keen to be seen as a champion of internet freedom, after all.


Anonymous said...

Just one correction: for now, 22 Member States signed ACTA, i.e. all except Germany, The Netherlands, Estonia, Slovakia and Cyprus, see e.g.

Anthony Miyazaki said...

Without the backing of the large organizations that backed the SOPA/PIPA fight, the online push against ACTA likely won't have the same effect.

Killing SOPA and PIPA: Did "The People" (or You?) Really Make a Difference?