European legislators on Wednesday rejected an international treaty to crack down on digital piracy, a vote that Internet freedom groups hailed as a victory for democracy but that media companies lamented as a setback for the creative industries.
Foes of the treaty said the vote, by an overwhelming margin in the European Parliament at Strasbourg, would probably end the prospects of European involvement in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, which has been signed by the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, South Korea and a number of individual E.U. members.
For campaigners against restrictions on the Internet, it was the latest in a series of political victories, after the U.S. Congress last winter abandoned proposed U.S. laws aimed at curbing the unauthorized sharing of music, movies and other digital media. Treaty opponents had rallied tens of thousands of protesters to the streets of European capitals last winter, dangling the threat that approval of the pact would lead to the proliferation of anti-piracy measures.
Opponents of the treaty said that even if other countries decided to proceed with ratification of the pact, it might have little authority, given that the E.U. represented 27 of the 39 countries that participated in the talks in the first place.
After the vote, some members of the Parliament stood up in the chamber, displaying placards reading “Hello democracy, goodbye ACTA.”
Groups representing movie studios, publishers, record labels and other rights holders bemoaned the outcome, saying protesters had twisted the debate to make the treaty seem more menacing than it actually is. The vote, they added, would hurt efforts to reduce online copyright theft, potentially costing Europe jobs at a time when it desperately needs them.
The Parliament “has given in to pressure from anti-copyright groups despite calls from thousands of companies and workers in manufacturing and creative sectors who have called for ACTA to be signed in order that their rights as creators be protected,” said Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers Council.
Publishers and other copyright owners, like the Motion Picture Association, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry and the Business Software Alliance, were hoping that ACTA would provide them with a powerful tool to pursue rights violations, especially in developing countries, where enforcement can be lax.
But opposition to ACTA spread online after word emerged several years ago that governments were negotiating the pact behind closed doors. Scare stories spread, with bloggers talking of alarming proposals to let border guards search airline passengers’ iPods for pirated music.
The final agreement, signed by the U.S. government last autumn, includes no such measures.
Still, opponents say it could provide a legitimate international framework for anti-piracy tactics they abhor, like the three-strikes system in France, under which repeat offenders face the suspension of their Internet access. The pact also calls for Internet service providers to take steps to enforce copyright, something they have generally resisted on the grounds that they are mere conduits for digital traffic.
“That would require a major and unhealthy shift in how the Internet works,” said Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, the European Consumers’ Organization, in Brussels. “It would establish a de facto and evidently unwilling Internet police.”
The vote was not even close, with 478 members of Parliament opposing the treaty, only 39 supporting it and 146 abstaining, yet it leaves considerable uncertainty. Under E.U. law, the treaty cannot go into effect without the Parliament’s endorsement.
“It’s a crushing victory,” said Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesman for La Quadrature du Net, a group in Paris that was active in the treaty protests. “It’s a political symbol on an enormous scale, in which citizens of the world, connected by the Internet, have managed to defeat these powerful, entrenched industries.”
The European Commission, which represented the 27 member states of the European Union in the negotiations, had already suspended efforts to ratify the pact, amid the outpouring of public anger. Instead, it referred the agreement to the European Court of Justice to determine whether it was lawful.
Karel De Gucht, the European trade commissioner, said the commission would wait for the court’s ruling, which could take several months, before consulting with trade partners on how to proceed.
“It’s clear that the question of protecting intellectual property does need to be addressed on a global scale,” he said in a statement. “With the rejection of ACTA, the need to protect the backbone of Europe’s economy across the globe — our innovation, our creativity, our ideas, our intellectual property — does not disappear.”
Carol J. Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative, said the other ACTA signatories could still put the agreement into effect, even without E.U. involvement.
“In that case, ACTA’s membership may initially be more Pacific-oriented than would be true with E.U. participation,” she said. “It is unfortunate that there has been so much misrepresentation of ACTA, because its language explicitly preserves free expression and privacy while fighting commercial-scale intellectual property theft. There continues to be a need for international cooperation on these issues, and the ACTA can still serve as a valuable forum through which countries can coordinate to stop counterfeit trade and piracy.”