ACTA puts digital rights on the table, locks the public out of the room
For the more than 10 years I've been writing this column, I keep coming back to copyright-policy issues, and not just because I work in Washington. Laws and court decisions constrain the hardware, software and services we buy -- this was a subject of one of my first copyright-overreach rants, back in 2000.
The fact that these legal and judicial barriers don't seem to stop software fraud (I prefer not to use the term "piracy") or even halt the distribution of tools used to unlock "protected" digital files and formats doesn't seem to stop larger copyright holders from asking for new laws to defend their interests.
That brings me to today's column, a look at an international negotiation underway for a deal called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. ACTA shares the defects of such existing, unbalanced copyright laws as the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, then wraps them up in a layer of secrecy that is at best counterproductive and at worst contemptuous.
You have to wonder how the people involved in ACTA think they're going to sell this thing to the public. How do you make the headline description "SECRET COPYRIGHT TREATY" look palatable? How do you spin a situation in which the government -- that is, our hired employees -- won't specify the goals of a negotiation done in our name and concerning our rights?
"Absurd" is the right word for this. At one point during my no-attribution-by-name interview with a "U.S. trade official" yesterday, this person complained that much of the criticism of ACTA was based on "hearsay." Well, whose fault is that?
ACTA offers plenty of potential for trouble on public-policy grounds, too. Remember, you don't necessarily need a "you shall" or "you shall not" clause in the law to coax companies to act as you'd wish when incentives can suffice; see, for example, my colleague Cecilia Kang's post this morning about possible changes afoot at Verizon. Merely cementing the DMCA's sweeping "anti-circumvention" provisions into international law seems awful enough, considering the frequent abuses they've invited here -- my favorite example of DMCA overreach being when the National Football League sought to use a since-overturned copy-control system in digital TV to enforce local TV-coverage blackouts.
I don't want to get on any more of a rant here, so let me close by noting who I contacted for the column. In addition to my interview with that trade official, I spoke with representatives of the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, Knowledge Ecology International, and Canadian law professor (and noted ACTA opponent) Michael Geist. I also chatted with two people who have seen the ACTA documents under a non-disclosure agreement (one with a public-interest group, the other working for a major American computing manufacturer); they didn't break their NDA but did offer useful guidance. Lastly, I checked with my former Post colleague Paul Blustein, who covered trade issues for us for years and now studies them at the Brookings Institution, to get some context about typical levels of disclosure in trade negotiations.
Does ACTA bother you or not? Let's discuss this issue in the comments -- or in today's Web chat, starting at noon.
November 13, 2009; 11:16 AM ET
Categories: Policy and politics
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