Tens of thousands of Germans have protested against ACTA, a controversial international anti-piracy agreement that has embroiled Germany's politicians in a heated debate on whether the treaty is a useful tool to protect intellectual property or an infringement of personal freedom.
On Saturday, people turned out in droves for demonstrations all over Germany, in spite of temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The biggest protests took place in Munich, where about 16,000 people took to the streets, and in Berlin, with 10,000 participants. Police estimate that all in all more than 30,000 demonstrators turned out in German towns and cities. The organizers of the protest put the number closer to 100,000.
According to the Associated Press, protests took place in other European countries as well, including Bulgaria, Romania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, France, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania. The German protests were by far the largest, though, due at least in part to the pulling power of a rather new political force.
“The German citizens have had enough. They don’t want their civil rights reduced based on the wishes of the content industry,” says Aleks Lessmann, spokesman for the Pirate Party, which organized the weekend protests.
ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, is an international treaty aiming to set global standards in the protection of intellectual property. It has been signed by 31 countries so far, among them the United States, Canada, Japan and 22 European Union member states. Critics argue that the treaty is infringing civil and digital rights.
On Friday, Germany’s Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger surprised her European colleagues when she refused to sign the treaty, saying she wanted the European Commission and the European Parliament in Brussels to consider all legal consequences first.
The president of the EU Parliament, the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, does not believe his assembly will pass the treaty without significant changes. “In its current form the bill is badly balanced,” he said in an interview on German broadcaster ARD. “Product piracy is illegal, theft is theft, online as much as offline. But basic individual rights are not sufficiently protected by this treaty.”
A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel called ACTA a “sensible treaty.” “We see ACTA as an important step to create an international legal framework in the fight against product piracy and counterfeiting,” Steffen Seibert told the press. Wolfgang Bosbach, a leading politician in Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party, criticizes the opponents of the agreement. “This is a watershed,” he says. “Whoever disagrees with this treaty needs to show alternative measures which can protect against the theft of intellectual property.”
It is hard to foresee which side will prevail in this debate, since supporters and opponents of the bill can be found in each political camp. "It is not just the content of the bill that upsets people," says Mr. Lessmann. "It is also the fact that they tried to introduce it through the backdoor, without proper public debate."
For the Pirate Party Germany, the ACTA controversy provides another boost in attention and support. The party, which advocates transparency in the legislative process and the protection of civil rights like freedom of information and data privacy, has been enjoying months of increasing voter sympathy.
In last year’s Berlin state elections they gained 9 percent of the vote, winning 15 seats in the city’s parliament. And official polls published last week gave them 6 percent on the national level. If there were elections right now, this would be enough to surpass the 5-percent threshold and make it into the Bundestag. The Free Democrats, who as part of the current government coalition hold the justice ministry, would get 3 percent and be kicked out of parliament.
Observers have seen this change in the political landscape coming. “Digital rights become more and more important in people’s lives,” says Axel Metzger, an expert on intellectual property at University of Hannover. “The established parties have been slow to recognize this fact. And in my opinion ACTA is biased in favor of copyright owners and against the users of their products.”