The secrecy surrounding Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has concerned me and many of my constituents as it has many MEPs. As a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, I met the European Commission in early March to discuss the unacceptable level of secrecy in which these negotiations are shrouded, and demanded that we in the European Parliament, as the only directly elected representatives of the public at European level, be given immediate access to the final draft of the consolidated negotiating text. You can view my question here.
Following severe criticism from myself and a number of my colleagues, I received assurances from David O’Sullivan, the Director General for Trade at the European Commission that ACTA will not in any way impinge on the right to privacy of the individual as had been reported by a number of people in the press and lobbying organisations. Mr O’Sullivan assured us that suggestions that could lead to the compulsory inspection and potential seizure of personal computers and iPods by customs are baseless and false. Rather the agreement is intended to create an international framework to prevent systematic, trans-national, large-scale infringements of IPR. He had clarified that the European Commission did not object to the release of the documents into the public domain but that a number of the other negotiating partners – reportedly the USA and Mexico – were blocking an agreement on public disclosure of the text. Nevertheless, I felt that the European Commission could do more and should adopt an active approach to persuading their trading partners that secrecy in trade agreements such as these is not only undemocratic, but also serves to exaggerate public suspicion and fear that they will be disadvantaged by the final text.
The Liberal group in the European Parliament, of which the Liberal Democrats form a significant part, led the call for increased transparency in these negotiations. We co-tabled a cross-party resolution calling for the release of the documents by the Commission into the public domain. While the Liberal group took the strongest line on this, a cross-party compromise text was endorsed at the Parliament’s Plenary meeting in Strasbourg on 10 March.
I and other Lib Dem MEPs are also supporting a written declaration which expresses concern about ACTA by declaring that the negotiated agreement must respect freedom of expression, privacy and Net neutrality. If more than half the MEPs support the written declaration by July 8, it will become a declaration by the European Parliament. If you want to encourage your MEPs to support it too, see here.
On a national level, the Liberal Democrats have also been working hard to increase transparency in public life and in these negotiations in particular. In January, Liberal Democrat Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Don Foster wrote to Lord Mandelson demanding that he come clean on the implications of the ACTA agreement for UK legislation, and what it will mean for UK consumers. Unfortunately, his request went unheeded by the Labour government until after the Digital Economy Bill was rushed through the ‘wash-up’ process and into law without proper democratic scrutiny.
The draft ACTA text was published last week by the European Commission. I am pleased that the draft text is now open to scrutiny by people and organisations all over the world. MEPs are now looking into the implications of the agreement, which has to come before the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade.