There's a reason you don't hear much about international trade agreements. They are kind of dull, and they're usually not very controversial. But the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is different.
"One feels that you're almost in a bit of a twilight zone," says Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. "I mean, we're talking about a copyright treaty. And it's being treated as akin to nuclear secrets."
For several years, the United States and other developed countries have been quietly working on ACTA. Geist has been one of the loudest critics of the proposed pact. He says it's a counterfeiting agreement in name only, and he thinks the treaty would actually change some of the fundamental rules governing the Internet. But what makes Geist really angry is the way it's been negotiated.
"Virtually none of it has been open to the public," Geist says. "Even the early meetings were actually held in secret locations, so no one even knew where they were taking place."
The secrecy around the talks has led to all kinds of speculation about what's in ACTA. Under pressure from people like Geist, the U.S. government has begun releasing summaries of the ACTA talks.
"We don't feel the agreement is being negotiated in secret at all," says Stan McCoy, assistant U.S. trade representative. "We are definitely committed, as the U.S. government, to facilitate meaningful public input into these negotiations."
But critics say it's hard to comment meaningfully on a text you can't read. The text of ACTA is not officially available to the public. And that's not unusual for a trade agreement, which can involve tariffs, pricing and other sensitive information. But critics say ACTA is different.
"This is not a trade agreement," says Gigi Sohn, president of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Public Knowledge. "This is a multilateral intellectual property agreement. It's only about intellectual property. They've called it a trade agreement in order to get secrecy and protection that trade agreements normally get."
Sohn is one of the few people who have seen a draft of ACTA — although she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement first.
"Let me tell you what this is about," says Sohn. "This is all about Hollywood and the recording industry wanting telephone and cable companies to filter their networks for copyright infringement."
Internet Provider Enforcement
Sohn says ACTA would force Internet providers to take a more aggressive role in policing their networks for illegal file-sharing of movies or music. In one leaked draft, the agreement would require Internet companies to boot repeat offenders off the Internet — and hand over their names to copyright holders without a warrant. That would contradict current U.S. law. But McCoy insists that is not the goal of ACTA.
"We're looking for coverage that's very similar to — and consistent with — the types of provisions we have in U.S. law," McCoy says. "We do not view the ACTA as a vehicle for changing U.S. law."
Protection For The U.S. Entertainment Industry
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) says it doesn't want to rewrite U.S. law, either. Rather, MPAA Vice President Greg Frazier says ACTA's real goal is to get other developed countries to catch up with U.S. copyright laws.
"We can't stay in business, we can't make more movies, if people are going to steal them all the time," Frazier says. "It's really pretty simple."
But Sohn says the copyright enforcement provisions in ACTA would inevitably curtail legitimate speech on the Internet.
"People are using blogs now to comment on movies and books and music," Sohn says. "You can't determine just by a dumb filter whether something is a lawful use or not."
To put an end to speculation about what is or isn't part of ACTA, Sohn and others are calling on the Obama administration to release the full text of the agreement. Chunks of it have already leaked from countries in the European Union. And this month, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for all ACTA documents to be made public.
Geist says the momentum for transparency seems to be building.
"The majority of the EU favors release of the text, [as well as] Canada [and] New Zealand," Geist says. "We're dealing almost uniformly with well-developed democracies who say this just isn't the right way of doing things. We don't negotiate our laws behind closed doors in secret."
The next round of ACTA talks is scheduled for April in New Zealand. The official agenda has not been made public.