This July saw Europe declaring its own independence--from a multinational agreement that critics say would have increased censorship and restricted Internet freedom. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which aims to establish common standards for intellectual property rights enforcement, was defeated in the European Parliament by a 478 to 39 vote. Nine countries outside the EU have signed on to the treaty, including the United States, and if six now officially ratify it the pact will go into effect. But without European support, the agreement has lost its heft--an outcome that organizers attribute to a months-long campaign, in streets and on computer screens across Europe, to raise public awareness about the impact of this secretive trade agreement.
ACTA found strong allies in the film, music and pharmaceutical industries. It pushed criminal sanctions for copyright violations, which opponents say would have increased the ability of governments to censor websites and punish Internet users for ordinary activity.
After the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act (better known as PIPA and SOPA) were introduced in the U.S. Congress last fall, online activists and tech companies launched a series of protests. The two bills were placed on indefinite hold in January, never coming to a vote. The momentum carried over to Europe, where 22 countries signed on to ACTA on January 26, sparking online petitions and public protests across the continent.
"What made this campaign so amazing was that we saw old-school activism...meet with online organizing and campaigning," says Raegan MacDonald of Access, an international digital rights advocacy group.
While MacDonald celebrates, she warns, "Bits and pieces of these agreements...are being copied and pasted into other international treaties and bi-lateral trade agreements." Such bits and pieces have made their way into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Canada-European Union Trade Agreement (CETA), both currently under negotiation.
Yet there is cause for hope. "With the successful mobilization against ACTA, the internet is becoming a veritable force in the international political landscape," says Alex Wilks, of the online activist group Avaaz. "It's now a fundamental part of our democracy, to hold power to account."