ACTA, a controversial agreement about counterfeiting and online copyright infringements, has been signed so far by 30 countries. In coming months Parliament will be able to decide its fate in the EU by either approving or rejecting it. But what is this all about? What does ACTA seek to achieve? Why has it provoked protests from groups across the world? How will the Parliament come to a decision and how will you be able to follow the process? Find out more in this briefing.
What is ACTA about?
The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is aimed at more effectively enforcing intellectual property rights on an international level. Many countries are worried that their economies suffer great damage due to counterfeiting and piracy. OECD estimated in 2005 that international trade in counterfeit and pirated products amounted to $200 billion, excluding digital products.
What will be covered by it?
Anything from counterfeit goods to copyright infringements on the internet.
Who takes part in ACTA?
ACTA was negotiated between the EU and its member states, the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland. Once the agreement is in force, then any member of the World Trade Organisation can apply to join.
Why is it controversial?
Critics worry the agreement would favour the interests of large companies at the expense of citizens' rights and see its possible application in the online sphere as a threat to people's privacy and human rights. In addition the negotiations have been denounced for a perceived lack of transparency as civil society groups and developing countries have not been involved.
Which countries have already signed it?
In the EU it has already been signed by all member states except Cyprus, Estonia, Slovakia, Germany and the Netherlands. Outside the EU it has already been signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the US.
Why is the role of the European Parliament crucial?
The Parliament has to give its consent before ACTA can enter into force in the EU. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament has the right to veto most of the international agreements concluded by the EU.
What options are available to the European Parliament?
The Parliament is not able to make any changes to it, being formally empowered to either approve or reject it. Since there is no legal deadline for a response, it is theoretically possible that the Parliament could let the matter pend indefinitely, an option which would in effect prevent ACTA entering into force in the EU, as its explicit consent is required for it to do so.
The European Commission announced on 22 February 2012 that it will refer ACTA to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on the agreement. Parliament will wait for the Court's ruling before drawing any conclusions. However, in the meantime it will continue its own scrutiny of the agreement.
How will the European Parliament come to a decision?
The European Parliament is committed to doing everything in the open and actively encourages people to engage in the process, consult its documents or follow the meetings, which are mainly broadcast live on its website.
The preparatory work will be done by the parliamentary committees. The committee on international trade will be in charge and as such will come up with a recommendation for the Parliament to either approve or reject ACTA. British MEP David Martin, a member of the S&D group, has been chosen by the committee to draft the position of the Parliament. However, there will be four other committees which will deliver their opinions on ACTA: the committee on industry, research and energy; the committee on legal affairs; the committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs; and the committee on development. They will spend several months talking to as many stakeholders and interested parties as possible in order to draw on their knowledge and expertise and come to an informed decision. Many, if not all, of their meetings will be broadcast live on the Parliament's website. Once the recommendation to MEPs is available, it will be made publicly accessible. The Parliament will then vote on ACTA during a plenary session, which people will be able to follow live on the website.
What has the European Parliament said so far about ACTA?
So far there have been three resolutions to call on the Commission to make ACTA documents public and increase the Parliament's role in negotiating the content:
a resolution on 11 March 2009 called on the Commission to "immediately make all documents related to the ongoing international negotiations on the ACTA publicly available"
a resolution on 10 March 2010 rejected the secrecy around ACTA ("deplores the calculated choice of the parties not to negotiate through well-established international bodies, such as WIPO and WTO") ("expresses its concern over the lack of a transparent process in the conduct of the ACTA negotiations, a state of affairs at odds with the letter and spirit of the TFEU")
a resolution on 24 November 2010 welcomes ACTA as a step in the right direction and calls on the Commission to confirm that it will have no impact on basic freedoms and existing legislation
What happens if the European Parliament votes in favour?
Cyprus, Estonia, Slovakia, Germany and the Netherlands would still have to sign the agreement and all member states would still have to ratify it before it can enter into force in the EU.
What happens if the European Parliament rejects it?
ACTA will not be able to enter into force in the EU. No agreement would be possible without the consent of the Parliament. However, if six countries outside the EU still ratify it then the agreement will enter into force there.
How will I be able to find out the latest developments on this in the European Parliament?
On Friday 24 February a feature page dedicated to ACTA will be created, which will then be regularly updated. Live broadcast of meetings will be announced and there will be links to documents that have been released. There will also be regular announcements through the Parliament's Facebook page and Twitter accounts (in 22 different languages).