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ACTA absurdity continues, may only get worse

The saga of the misleadingly named "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement" has only gotten more ridiculous since I decried it in November.

For those of you whose eyes (understandably) glaze over at any mention of multilateral trade agreements, ACTA is an attempt by the United States and dozens of other countries to write new rules to combat counterfeiting of trademarked goods, as its name suggests, and to stop copyright violations as well, a goal left out of its moniker. (If you've got a spare 90 minutes, you can watch a video of a panel discussion I led about ACTA at Google's Washington offices last month.)

But what might those exact rules be? The people negotiating this deal say they'll tell us when they've finished that work. In the meantime, they will only offer vague declarations about the problems they aim to solve.

Consider, for example, the woefully bland statement put out by the office of the U.S. trade representative after the conclusion of the latest round of ACTA talks last month. Then compare it with the briefer but far more useful summary put together from outside reports by ACTA opponent Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

That level of secrecy has begun to draw criticism from groups that were early proponents of ACTA. For example, in November the Motion Picture Association of America wrote a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk requesting greater transparency and public participation. And at the end of January, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce voiced similar thoughts in a press release -- sentiments that went unsaid in a June 2009 endorsement of ACTA.

But the administration itself -- yes, the one that keeps emphasizing the virtues of transparency and open government -- doesn't seem to be getting the memo. In an interview with the trade publication World Trademark Review (note: you may get hit with a site-registration request after reloading that link), USTR adviser Stan McCoy blamed ACTA anxiety over the "misperception that this agreement will focus mostly or exclusively on copyright infringement in the digital environment."

BZZT! You can't whine about a "misperception" about what you're doing when you don't tell people what you're doing.

One concept to come up in too many reports about the substance of ACTA to be chalked up to a "misperception" is a concept called either "graduated response" or "three strikes." This is the idea that this agreement would endorse, encourage or require Internet providers to disconnect the accounts of users found to be sharing copyrighted materials.

How might this sort of privatized law enforcement work? One example emerged this week in a CNet story about a Qwest Internet user who was wrongly threatened with disconnection -- a threat that included the suggestion that she would be blackballed by competing Internet providers -- until Qwest responded to CNet's inquiries by investigating her situation and discovered that her home network had been compromised.

Qwest's conduct, unfortunately, doesn't even seem that bad compared with some of the appallingly dumb things said in favor of three-strikes policies during a panel discussion at last week's State of the Net Conference.

Now remember that the discussion about ACTA is just getting warmed up. I can only imagine what will happen when the more... motivated Tea Party types start paying attention to stories with headline descriptions like "SECRET COPYRIGHT TREATY." Care to take a guess at how the debate will turn at that point?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 3, 2010; 12:56 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics  
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"until Qwest responded to CNet's inquiries by investigating her situation and discovered that her home network had been compromised."

Did she know her home network was compromised? Did Quest suggest to her that she check, or have someone check, for that? Did CNet?

Yeah, ACTA sounds worse by the day, but if this is what it takes to get botnets under control then it may be necessary. Combine botnets running rampant with E911 services being on voip systems and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Posted by: wiredog | February 3, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

We should thank Rob Pegoraro for following ACTA, a negotiation that receives little coverage from general interest newspapers. What is quite remarkable is how easily the Obama Administration is setting a precedent in favor of secrecy for setting global norms over intellectual property policy, and how little push back they receive from Congress or the broader journalist community. The White House (USTR is an office in the White House) continues to defend a process that empowers (and consequently enriches those who sell access) to lobbyists and hand picked insiders, and treats documents that are shared with all negotiating parties and corporate insiders as though they are real state secrets. This is something you would expect from Dick Cheney, not Joe Biden (one the supporters of secrecy in the ACTA negotiation). James Love, KEI

Posted by: jamielove | February 3, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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