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Europe's Internet revolt: protesters see threats in antipiracy treaty

Anger over proposed antipiracy treaty ACTA was expected to bring thousands to Europe's streets today. Supporters say it will better protect intellectual labor, while opponents see free speech threats. 

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Protests have been as much virtual as in the flesh. An online petition calling for the rejection of ACTA has been signed by more than 1.75 million people. Hackers have also targeted websites supporting the agreement. 

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Industry bodies are concerned about ACTA's scope. "It would be a sad day for the European Internet industry if the [EU] parliament rushed on this," says Andrea D'Incecco, public affairs manager for EuroISPA, a group representing European Internet service providers. 

Mr. D'Incecco says ACTA would change European law, which currently requires a court order to be served on ISPs before they take action against unlawful online material. He also says the "secrecy" of the negotiations, initiated by the European Commission but until recently excluding the EU parliament, is a problem.

EuroISPA is in favor of combating infringement, but any strengthening of existing law requires "a proper democratic mandate determined by all of the EU institutions," he adds."We didn't have any real discussion in parliament until now, despite this treaty dating back five years."

A spokesperson for Marc Vanheukelen, EU trade commissioner, said ACTA was negotiated by the commission and member states, and public debate is not being ignored. "We welcome an open debate on it but, of course, we welcome a debate based on facts. There are a lot fears and myths around." 

Joe McNamee of the European Digital Rights (EDRI) lobby says ACTA's marriage of counterfeiting and unauthorized copying conflates two different problems and risks trivializing the issue of counterfeit medications, which can be damaging to health.

"Either you're saying [illegally] downloading a Madonna song is as serious as a distributing life-threatening counterfeit drugs, or you're saying distributing life-threatening counterfeit drugs is as serious as a downloaded Madonna song."

Not just about millionaire performers

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America's support for ACTA has made the treaty a lightning rod for activists. They have poured scorn on multi-millionaire performers and executives complaining about profit losses from downloads, but the difficulties faced in earning a living reach down to young artists on the rise and the professionals and technicians involved in getting a recording made.

Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming book Digital Vertigo, says simplistic views are all too common.

"The opposition to measures like this is supported and funded by companies for whom it's not in their interest," he says. "They've successfully built up this idea of a struggle between good and evil, with the media companies playing the evil role. In fact there are legitimate interests on both sides."

A London band weighs in

Up-and-coming London-based rock band "The Cast of Cheers" recently signed to a label owned by Universal Music Group. Unlike the band's first album, which was given away free online, the next recording will be a commercial release.

Guitarist Neil Adams says making money is a real problem for musicians, but thinks education is a better strategy than law. "People don't realize the work that goes into it [creating a record], or how much the band pays" for production, he says.

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