European Commission pushing ACTA through the backdoor?

Yes, say civil liberties groups. No, say politicians.

Digital civil liberties groups on Tuesday said that a trade deal being thrashed out between Europe and Canada is an attempt to introduce the controversial anti-piracy agreement ACTA by the back door.

Leaked documents have shown that the part of the text of the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA) that relates to intellectual property rights enforcement is almost identical to ACTA. Also, it's a little-known deal that is being conducted behind closed doors, which sounds strikingly familiar to those who protested against ACTA.

"The worst and most damaging parts for our freedoms online are word for word the same in ACTA and CETA. This trick to bring back ACTA through the backdoor is in line with Trade Commissioner De Gucht's declaration after the vote on July 4, that he has no consideration whatsoever for citizens and the Parliament and is just the copyright lobbies' lapdog. CETA must be opposed and defeated, just like ACTA," said J鲩mie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, in a statement.

But is this really an attempt by the European Commission, which negotiates such deals, to override the European Parliament's decision last week to reject ACTA? Leading member of Parliament Marietje Schaake says no.

"I am concerned about some of the alarmist emails I have received already," said Schaake. "This deal, although the text is indeed a copy and paste from the ACTA agreement, is not a backdoor attempt by the Commission, since the current draft was drawn up before ACTA was thrown out. At the time the Commission still anticipated that ACTA would be passed."

Even Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge, a vocal opponent of ACTA, also pointed out on his blog that CETA was drafted long before the European Parliament voted against ACTA. The Commission assumed that ACTA would be rubber-stamped he said. "This was more than a reasonable assumption from the European Commission in February 2012; it was even the way I would have expected them to do their job, whether I liked it or not," added Falkvinge.

CETA is still in the early stages and will not be put before the European Parliament until the beginning of 2014. The text leaked this week dates from February. In the meantime there will be the usual legal checks and text revisions.

"It's too early to say this is a new ACTA. If the Commission is wise, it will modify the chapter before it comes before the Parliament or I see no reason why the same concerns wouldn't be raised," said Schaake. In this sense the fact that the two deals are so similar could be interpreted as good news for opponents of ACTA.

ACTA aimed to combat counterfeiting and online piracy, but civil liberties groups believed the digital section left the door open for countries to force ISPs to police their own customers. Others said that digital and tangible goods cannot be treated in the same way.

"It is high time for a reform of intellectual property rights enforcement. One of the alarm bells for me with ACTA was the Commission's promise that it wouldn't change anything! Things need to change. But I think we currently have a good momentum and I hope for a fact-based constructive discussion," Schaake said.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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