The European Parliament has not only stymied an agreement that could have been widely misinterpreted and mis-implemented, to the detriment of ordinary citizens. It also demonstrated that, when people acrossEuropeunite to voice their concerns about an issue like this, the Parliament can and will act on those concerns, and has real power to block proposals which are opposed by citizens.
As my Labour colleague David Martin, the MEP leading on ACTA for the European Parliament, said in the debate this week, this was not a vote on the importance of intellectual property rights. Creativity and innovation are the “raw material” for theUK andEurope and vital for our prosperity and jobs. Intellectual property rights, such as patents and copyright, are needed to foster and protect these and allow us to compete. As David said, “we cannot compete globally as a low-wage economy, and we should not try.”
However, we could not accept ACTA in its current form. The agreement could have confused the two very different issues of counterfeiting of physical goods and online piracy. Measures which might have been appropriate in combating physical counterfeiting, could have led to serious infringements of privacy and civil liberties when put in the context of online activities. Its vagueness on what was meant by activities of a “commercial scale,” for example, might have been exploited to criminalise individuals who share files with a few friends online.
Most worryingly of all, provisions in ACTA would have pushed internet service providers (ISPs) to monitor their customers’ online activities and report any copyright violations. This is a very dangerous road to go down; most people would certainly not tolerate such a level of intrusion with the letters they sent and received via the post. As David said in Parliament’s plenary session this week, this is outside the proper role of internet service providers, and the task of enforcing the law should not be privatised in this way.
David and I, along with other Labour MEPs, would support a new treaty to protect intellectual property in Europe, as it remains a high priority forUKand European prosperity. But any new agreement must tread more carefully around citizens’ rights. This was the first international agreement to be blocked by the Parliament, using the new powers granted to it by the 2010 Lisbon Treaty – but it will not be the last.
The civil liberties and rights we enjoy in Europeare hard-won and extremely valuable. As I have said before, they are a fundamental part of what it means to be European, and when EU member states appear to shy away from them it is worrying for us all. Now, citizens acrossEurope have shown they are willing to fight for civil liberties, and politicians at all levels are going to have to take that on board.