Guest contribution on ACTA: What kind of Internet freedom do we want?

By Helga Trüpel

If not ACTA, then what exactly? Sections of the Internet community have a very one-sided understanding of ‘freedom’, but freedom without responsibility undermines cultural diversity.

Internet activists like to paint a drastic picture, so for their ‘Stop ACTA’ campaign they adopted the image of a giant octopus with its tentacles round the world. The ‘monster’ with the world in its clutches is ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which aims to establish international standards against product piracy and copyright infringements.

Yet it is high time to distinguish between sheer alarmism and necessary criticism. This will entail grappling with issues like the openness of the Internet, the organisation of copyright law, the willingness to pay for copyright-protected digital content and the topic of sustainable data protection.

Let me make this perfectly clear: ACTA is utterly the wrong approach. Having a trade agreement cobbled together without democratic processes and concealed from public scrutiny almost harks back to the secretive politics of the 19th century. But anyone now raising the spectre of the downfall of the free Internet should also point out that Germany will have no need to implement ACTA because it already complies with the law. Nevertheless, it is significant that civil society is mounting a major protest and also that both Poland and the Czech Republic have stopped the ratification process for the time being. For ACTA is an agreement that would have prevented and stalled urgently-needed debate on how our digital culture should be organised.

A Europe-wide conflict

All of Europe is plagued by this conflict. The way the Internet has evolved over the past decade, many users now take for granted the free availability of both public-domain and copyright-protected content. And ‘free’ here means not only non-politically-censored, but also free of charge.

This development should – and indeed does – deeply upset creative individuals, artists and media professionals intent on living off their innovative thought processes and artistic output. It is perfectly alright for artists to decide to work with Creative Commons and offer free downloads of their works or stream them, but it is totally out of order when this happens against the originator’s wishes. Core elements of copyright law are now being called into question not only by Internet activists, but also in Google-sponsored research and even by figures like European Commissioner Neelie Kroes. Another reason for the dwindling acceptance of copyright law is the excessive culture of threats and warnings issued to clamp down on consumers to an unwarranted extent.

Whereas the Internet freedom depicted in the campaigns against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and ACTA is indeed rightly directed against a measure that would block the Internet, be susceptible to political abuse and prone to exploitation if copyright was infringed, it must be said that some elements within the Internet community seem to have a very one-sided concept of freedom.

Theirs is the freedom of users who do not want to pay, who are unwilling to pay Web-based companies and Internet service providers a (fair) price for content they need. The campaign to dilute copyright law is not merely a politically motivated appeal for freedom:  it is also being driven by the strong commercial interests of major new Internet companies like Google and Facebook.

Does the shutdown of Megaupload constitute censorship?

When Megaupload was shut down by the public prosecutor’s office, Eva Joly, the Green Party candidate in the French Presidential race, criticised the move as censorship. But is it political censorship when an illegal business is provisionally shut down? Is that not rather a constitutional approach to dealing with violations of the law? Sure, we must counter political censorship, say in China, Iran or  here in Europe; but when the fundamental right to copyright protection is under attack, we need to distinguish between freedom of information on the Internet and copyright. Internet data protection cannot be allowed, per se, to topple copyright protection.

Yes, Internet blocks should not be permitted; yes, Internet neutrality has to be defended; and yes, collecting societies must be made more transparent. And yet, a completely irresponsible and untenable concept of Internet freedom is a misguided notion of freedom. Should copyright fall by the wayside, in the medium term there will be less cultural diversity and fewer creative professionals.

The Convention on Human Rights of 1948 states in article 27, paragraph 1 that everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Paragraph 2 of that Article also provides, however, that copyright should  be protected. In addition, freely available does not mean in vain, but that there must be access without censorship. The central direction of green cultural policy, must include the willingness to reward the creators.

ACTA’s opponents have a duty to find new ways of preventing Internet piracy, for example by banning advertising on illegal portals or by promoting a willingness to pay for the consumption of digital, copyright protected  content. Contributing to greater cultural diversity by paying people to be creative is a sustainable, value-based approach for markets peddling digital culture, in keeping with the motto: “Credit the creators”.

Helga Trüpel is an MEP for the Greens and the Vice-Chair of the Culture Committee.