BRUSSELS - The European Parliament overwhelmingly defeated the international ACTA anti-piracy trade agreement Wednesday after concern that it would limit Internet freedom mobilized broad opposition across Europe.
The vote — 39 in favour, 478 against and 165 abstentions — means that as far as the EU is concerned the treaty is finished, at least for the moment, though other countries may well participate.
Supporters had said ACTA — the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement — was needed to standardize international laws that protect the rights of those who produce music, movies, pharmaceuticals, fashion goods and other products that often fall victim to piracy and intellectual property theft. Opponents feared it would lead to censorship and a loss of privacy on the Internet.
Many other countries — including the U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea — also have signed the trade agreement, though no one has ratified it yet, and the EU vote won't affect them.
David Martin, a member of the Parliament from Scotland and the person who reported to the European Parliament on the proposal, said before Wednesday's vote that the agreement was dead. "No emergency surgery, no transplant, no long period of recuperation is going to save ACTA," Martin said. "It's time to give it its last rites. It's time to allow its friends to mourn and for the rest of us to get on with our lives."
But EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht did not sound ready to give up altogether. He said in a statement after the vote that he would push ahead with his plan to have Europe's highest court determine whether the agreement, as written, would curtail any fundamental European rights, and would consider his next move in light of that opinion.
"It's clear that the question of protecting intellectual property does need to be addressed on a global scale — for business, the creative industries whether in Europe or our partner countries," De Gucht said. "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."
But the overwhelming vote Tuesday would seem to indicate that the agreement in its current form has no chance to be approved.
The treaty was unanimously approved by the 27 EU heads of government in December. But EU efforts to ratify it ran into deep trouble almost immediately. For the EU to become a party to the treaty, all 27 member countries would have to formally approve it.
Protests erupted on the streets of several European cities. A petition against ACTA garnered 2.8 million signatures.
It began to look increasingly unlikely that all 27 countries would ratify the agreement — so much so that in February the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, suspended ratification efforts and instead asked the European Court of Justice to render its opinion. The hope clearly was to stall for time and try to resume ratification efforts, armed with a favourable court opinion, in a calmer atmosphere.
The failure to ratify the treaty is a humiliation for the EU, which was one of the prime movers in the multi-year effort to negotiate the agreement. EU officials had maintained that ACTA would change nothing in European law, but would be simply an instance of the EU leading by example and exporting its strong copyright protection laws to other countries where safeguards are weaker.
Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin