BRUSSELS - The European Commission, facing opposition in city streets, on the Internet and in the halls of parliament, has suspended efforts to ratify a new international anti-counterfeiting agreement, and instead will refer it to Europe's highest court to see whether it violates any fundamental EU rights.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht asserted Wednesday that an opinion from the European Court of Justice would clear away the fog of misinformation surrounding the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, known as ACTA.
"This debate must be based upon facts and not upon the misinformation or rumour that has dominated social media sites and blogs in recent weeks," De Gucht told reporters in Brussels.
The decision appeared to reflect recognition by European Union officials of the political obstacles. Protests against the agreement were staged earlier this month in several European capitals — including Berlin, Helsinki, Paris and Vienna — by critics who say the agreement would stifle free speech and access to information.
The hacking group known as Anonymous claimed responsibility last week for a new series of hacks against the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and consumer rights websites. The sites were replaced with a violent German-language video satirizing ACTA.
ACTA has been under negotiation for years. Its drafters say it is needed to harmonize international standards to protect the rights of those who produce music, movies, pharmaceuticals, fashion goods, and a range of other products that often fall victim to piracy and intellectual property theft.
The U.S. has signed the agreement. Others include Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea. Mexico and Switzerland participated in the negotiations but have not yet signed.
The EU and 22 EU Member States signed ACTA on 26 January 2012 in Tokyo. Although the European Council — the European Union heads of government — unanimously approved ACTA in December, for the EU to be a party to the treaty, all 27 member countries would have to formally ratify it.
The treaty has been questioned by members of the European Parliament. In a statement Wednesday, David Martin, a spokesman on the issue for the Socialists and Democrats, the second largest bloc in the parliament, welcomed the decision to get the court's opinion.
"Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht today admitted that there are still many question marks about ACTA and what the implementation of the agreement, as it stands, would mean for citizens and for the freedom of the internet," Martin said. "The Parliament has been calling for more clarity for a long time, and we already requested legal opinions from several committees in the European Parliament. Now this ruling will be a good guarantee for the impact on fundamental rights.
EU officials say the agreement will not change EU law. They insist what was legal pre-treaty would remain legal the day after, and what was illegal would remain illegal. But they have said the EU must ratify it as an example to other countries where intellectual property rights are less protected than they are in the EU in order to protect European products and ideas from being stolen elsewhere.
"ACTA will not censor websites or shut them down; ACTA will not hinder freedom of the internet or freedom of speech," De Gucht said.
However, opponents fear ACTA would lead to censorship and a loss of privacy on the Internet. And the plan to gain court approval of the agreement has left at least some of them unimpressed.
"No legal debate can fix ACTA or give it a legitimacy that by design it cannot have," said Jeremie Zimmermann, co-founder of the Internet advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.
Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report. Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin