The European Commission has bowed to political pressure and has asked Europe's highest court to decide whether the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) treaty is compatible with European Union law.
It was evident from comments by Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht on Wednesday, that the aim is to dispel concerns about the treaty in the hope of having it ratified.
In a thinly veiled jibe at the anti-ACTA movement which has led widespread protests across Europe, De Gucht said: "This debate must be based upon facts and not upon the misinformation or rumor that has dominated social media sites and blogs in recent weeks."
Opponents of the deal say it leaves the door open for countries to force ISPs to become the unofficial police of the Internet. According to the final ACTA text, a country may "order an online service provider to disclose expeditiously to a right holder information sufficient to identify a subscriber whose account was allegedly used for infringement."
Some of the more alarmist suggestions from protesters, for example that private MP3 players would be inspected at borders, are specifically ruled out by the treaty. However, it is up to individual countries to decide how to implement the deal.
ACTA also states that in implementing the treaty, countries "shall take into account the need for proportionality between the seriousness of the infringement, the interests of third parties, and the applicable measures, remedies and penalties." But most digital rights protesters are not comforted by these words and have welcomed the scrutiny of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
"The decision to refer ACTA to the ECJ is hopefully a nail in the coffin of this far-reaching and unnecessary agreement," sad Green Party member of the European Parliament, Jan Philipp Albrecht.
British member of the European Parliament David Martin, who was been given the job of evaluating ACTA after his predecessor resigned in protest at the lack of transparency surrounding the agreement, was more circumspect. "We will wait for the ECJ ruling before we draw conclusions, but an open political debate in the European Parliament is also necessary on the measures foreseen by ACTA," he said.
The European Commission along with 22 E.U. member states signed the international accord on Jan. 26, but many of those countries are back-tracking following public outcry over the treaty. Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovakia have all put ratification on ice.
The last hurdle for ACTA supporters will be the European Parliament. The European Union cannot go ahead with ratifying the treaty unless parliamentarians back it in a vote in June. When the deal last went before the Parliament in November 2010, it was only very narrowly passed -- 331 to 294, with 11 abstentions.
A large number of parliamentarians, including the Parliament's new chief, Martin Schulz, have recently gone on record as being against the deal.
Parliament's international trade committee will discuss the agreement on Feb. 29. It must then reach an opinion, which it will put to the rest of Parliament.
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