You'd be forgiven for thinking that transparency was a hallmark of 21st century democracy. Negotiations for ACTA (otherwise known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) have kicked off amidst much secrecy in South Korea with governments citing 'security reasons' for the stealthy approach.
Information uncovered to date has caused significant alarm amongst copyright activists world wide, with many calling for ACTA to be opened up to those likely to be most affected by it (e.g. the general public) who they say are being kept in the dark whilst entertainment industry lobbyists are getting full access to ACTA negotiations.
New Zealand is understood to be participating in the negotiations along with Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.
Whilst the US government claims that ACTA is about counterfeiting rather than major changes to copyright law, and shouldn't be subject to public scrutiny, leaked versions of ACTA discussion papers seem to indicate that copyright lobby organisations may have in fact turned treaty negotiations to suit their own agenda.
This has elicited such alarm locally, that Jordan Carter, the Deputy Director of Internet New Zealand has said that ""Instead of focusing on customs procedures and stopping large scale commercial piracy, it seems the negotiations are turning to areas that should be out of bounds."
Carter goes on to say that ""New Zealand should take a stand against any attempt to hijack the negotiations."
The proposed ACTA plan looks similar to the free trade agreement negotiated between the US and South Korea several years ago. The agreement came under intense criticism, with many saying that it was more about protecting the American entertainment industry rather than free trade between the US and Korea.
The agreement saw South Korea implementing tough copyright laws which saw them becoming one of the first countries to disconnect copyright infringers from the internet.
More alarmingly, policing copyright infringement saw liability on third parties increase to such levels that user generated content in South Korea, the nation with the greatest high speed broadband penetration in the world has effectively been lobotomised so much that services such as YouTube has refused to accept uploaded content in case of becoming liable for copyright infringement.
As in South Korea, signatories to the final ACTA agreement would be required to implement similarly draconian copyright laws, including anti copy protection circumvention with little or no exemptions for legitimate use.
Liability would most likely fall onto third parties for the actions of their users (even though in New Zealand the folly of leaving ISPs and businesses open to prosecution has long been recognised). Even worse, internet disconnections for file sharing could also come into play.
Infringers could be fined or have their device confiscated or even destroyed, according to the four-page document.
ACTA also proposes that internet service providers are forced to hand over personal information pertaining to any alleged copyright infringers
Because ACTA failed to get the treaty tabled by the WTO, they are effectively operating outside of accepted international forums such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation and would be overseen by a committee made up of representatives from member nations.
Having its own governing body would in effect also make ACTA unaccountable to any existing international trade organisations such as the WTO.
Perhaps most worrying of all however, is the impact that ACTA could have on smaller signatory countries such as New Zealand. After the recent public controversy surrounding Section 92A of the Copyright (new Technologies) Amendment Act, many had hoped that New Zealand would develop copyright laws that were tailored for this country's unique position as a small, isolated but technologically developed economy and that any copyright laws would be reasonable for both the public and copyright holders.
Under ACTA, however, it appears that individual nations, and in particular, smaller ones such as New Zealand will have to eventually harmonise their copyright laws in line with those recommended by ACTA.
Although Pat Pilcher is an employee of Telecom, his views are not necessarily those of his employer.By Pat Pilcher