Who controls the internet? Well, at the moment a trade agreement known as ACTA is being negotiated by the U.S., Japan, the European Union, Canada and more than a dozen other countries, and, if ratified, would significantly regulate what you can and can’t do online. ACTA’s rules will supersede each country’s local laws. Oh, and the whole affair is secret. Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains the possible impact on net users worldwide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lessig is worried that the Google agreement will result in copyright creep, changing the ways we can use books for decades to come. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is worried about copyright creep, too, on a global scale. Right now, a multinational body is deliberating terms for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. Participants include the United States, the European Union, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and so on. But the agreement doesn't just cover fake Rolexes and DVDs. There are indications that it’s also considering new rules related to intellectual property online. Critics worry that important decisions affecting our online lives could come in through the back door, because the negotiations are secret. Danny O’Brien is the international outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Danny, welcome to the show.
DANNY O'BRIEN: Well, it’s good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, ACTA is an anti-counterfeiting act, so what does this have to do with the Internet exactly?
DANNY O'BRIEN: Well, that’s a very good question. When this was first proposed a few years ago by Japan, the idea was to clamp down on the kind of loopholes that allow people to trade in fake Rolexes or fake medicines. Unfortunately, the lobbyists in that particular area are also very worried about how the Internet is eating into their businesses. They've been hankering for a chance to toughen up copyright law for many years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, was supposed to ride herd on these copyright issues.
DANNY O'BRIEN: Well, indeed, it was set up as a U.N. agency to smooth over all of these sort of strange differences in people’s copyright laws. Unfortunately, it’s been slightly too effective in absorbing the concerns that a lot of people have about how copyright laws can damage the free spread of information on the Internet. There are a lot of people now at WIPO, particularly the developing nations, who are actually sitting there saying, no, you know, we actually want a minimalist approach to copyright. That hasn't pleased the people forming this ACTA trade agreement separately from WIPO.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is it precisely about this that bothers you so much?
DANNY O'BRIEN: You know, I wish I could tell you, but [BROOKE LAUGHS] unfortunately, because [LAUGHS] it’s a confidential process -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what do you imagine might be in it?
DANNY O'BRIEN: Well, there’s been a wish list for Internet enforcement for a very long time. And the sort of usual suspects, the recording industry, the motion picture industry, have been taking this to every kind of venue that they could find. It’s stuff like what they managed to pass in France, three strikes, which is a scheme by which if you’re accused three times by the recording industry of filesharing you can be put on a national black list and banned from the Internet for up to a year. Other examples are laws that ban software that you can use to sort of back up DVDs or undo the DRM, the thing that stops you being able to play the music that you buy from one vendor on another vendor’s music plan. In countries like Canada, it’s perfectly legal to buy and make that kind of software. In the United States it’s actually a criminal act. But really, there’s just an absolute grab bag of issues that now threaten to affect people’s everyday behavior online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if you were to describe the stakes in global terms, what are they?
DANNY O'BRIEN: Well, when do we decide that we're going to place a bunch of laws that govern what we can and can't do on the Internet, and in what venue do we decide to do that? Right now there’s a huge debate about these things. And I think that the right place to discuss it is in a legislature, is in a public place. That’s almost the opposite of what’s happening here. No one can get to see this, apart from a bunch of lobbyists who then have to sign nondisclosure agreements like it’s the new Apple iPad that they're producing, rather than an actual piece of law. This will move from being a trade agreement to, to the law of the land, with very little oversight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it does have the air of a global conspiracy, like, you know, the Trilateral Commission -
DANNY O'BRIEN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - or the Bilderberg Group.
DANNY O'BRIEN: [LAUGHS] You know, and I see that all the time. But really, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get conspiracy theories. I would love for them to come out and say, hey, this is the Internet chapter that we have here, what do you think of it? Hopefully, with a little bit more pressure from ordinary Net users, we might yet see that kind of document presented.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Danny, thank you very much.
DANNY O'BRIEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Danny O’Brien is the international outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up - the haven for journalists in the land of fire and ice.