Does ACTA pose a threat to civil liberties and developing countries' access to generic medicine? Many people oppose the controversial anti-counterfeiting agreement because of concerns over these two issues. MEPs, who will be crucial to deciding the treaty's fate in the EU, staged a special workshop on 1 March to grill experts about their insights into ACTA. Find out how they think the treaty will affect civil liberties and access to generic medicine.
Dr Olivier Vrins, of Altius Lawyers, said ACTA states that its provisions should be transposed with respect to fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and freedom to have a fair trial. "Fundamental rights of European citizens are not in serious danger because of ACTA. The idea of proportionality is particularly important because it is applied as well by the European Court of Human Rights when balancing out various fundamental rights which might be in conflict, here the right on property on the one hand and on the other the right of protection of private life, freedom of speech and freedom of access to information. This preservation of fundamental rights means that not only that people would be able to say that certain acts do not infringe intellectual property, but parties must foresee certain exceptions and limits to intellectual property."
Rupert Schlegelmilch, of the European Commission's directorate-general for trade, said that the Commission took concerns over civil rights extremely seriously, but there was no real reason to be worried. "Intellectual property is property but it's not property only. Privacy and access to the net are just as important. We believe the treaty strikes a fair balance in that respect. ACTA does not impose a new standard. What will be imposed is what we have. Nothing new will be enforced. What is legal is legal, what is illegal is illegal. ACTA is just about making sure that people do something about it."
Dr Meir Pugatch, of the University of Haifa, argued that ACTA will not have an impact on access to generic medicine, as the agreement does not cover patents. "I think that we already have the necessary safeguards today to ensure access to generic medicines, and therefore I don't think ACTA poses any serious concern, nor does it create a serious contribution to the issue. The problem is counterfeited medicines and substandard medicines. If you end up using counterfeited medicine or substandard medicine, it could seriously damage your health. Those who suffer the most from substandard medicines and counterfeited medicines are poor populations."
Commission representative Mr Schlegelmilch later added: "Developing countries will be able to continue to buy the generic medicines that they need just as before."
However, the British Social Democrat David Martin, who is responsible for steering ACTA through Parliament, said many questions still remained about how the treaty could affect access to generic medicine. "What we don't know is how border agencies will be asked to define counterfeit medicine as opposed to generic medicine, especially when many of these medicines that arrive at the frontier are packaged and labelled similarly to the original medicine. How will this operate?"
Mr Martin said the workshop showed there was a need for more information, which is why it would be good for the European Court of Justice to give a ruling on questions to be prepared by Parliament. "There is an English expression where we say the devil is in the detail. The problem with ACTA is that the devil is in the lack of details. We don't have enough information on many of the areas where in the end we will have to make a judgment on."