Whilst the Greeks spent the weekend fighting each other in the streets about poverty, protesters across the rest of Europe united to wage war on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The demonstrations that took place in over 200 cities follow weeks of protests in Poland and Sweden, supported by Anonymous and the various Pirate Party's of Europe.
If you happen to follow any of the many Anonymous Twitter accounts or ever go on reddit, you will know ACTA well. If you don't (or if you're just not sure exactly what it is), remember those horrible bills threatening internet freedom in the US, SOPA and PIPA? ACTA is basically the nuclear version of those. If you believe the technology blogs (and why wouldn't you? I get all of my spiritual and moral beliefs from technology blogs) we're currently living in the plot of The Matrix: It's them against us all.
So far, ACTA has been ratified by the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and parts of Europe, but there are still some EU member states which are stalling (most recently Germany). So, while the goliath US entertainment industry is still handing sarcy RIAA boss Cary Sherman plates of shit to throw at anyone who dare come out against ACTA, there's still a chance the bill will be defeated.
To grasp the extent of the protests on Saturday, here is an interactive Google map with little pointers for each one. Some have claimed Europe hasn't had this many angry people on its streets in one, single day since the anti-Iraq war demonstrations.
Despite the off-putting dresscode suggestions on the London protest's Facebook wall ("SHOULD +V for Vendetta mask for the lulz +SUITS or +Bright/outrageous super awesome clothes that would make people stare +PASSION AND RAGE!") I went down and followed around a bunch of people who feel they are being persecuted by copyright despots.
Here they are delivering a fairly basic message to the US embassy.
And here they are asking the Queen not to ruin the internet. (Personally I'd just love to ask her what she thinks it is.)
Here's some Anonymous guys in front of Big Ben showing the world why A&F hoodies never get written into dystopian movies.
And this guy, who likes metal, HATES copyright law and owns at least three different coloured pencils.
While I was there, I met up with leader of the British Pirate Party Loz Kaye, who I eventually got to speak to once he'd finished shouting loudly into a bullhorn for a long time.
VICE: Hey Loz. Good turn out, right?
Loz Kaye: Good, very happy to see so many people out.
I've seen the hate for ACTA on the web, what are people saying about it elsewhere?
Médecins Sans Frontières have criticised ACTA's effects on their ability to get life-saving drugs to people in need of humanitarian aid. That's not trivial, it's a matter of life and death.
One question I wanted to ask you, which nobody seems to know the answer to, is who actually wrote ACTA, specifically?
This is part of the whole problem. We have a list of people and bodies who were invited to negotiations. But we don't know whether they were for it, against it or just there to drink coffee. This is indicative of the whole way this has been negotiated behind closed doors. We do know that certain countries have been involved all along though, such as the US, Japan and Canada, as well as the EU.
Do you think this is ACTA's main problem – legitimacy?
Even if you accept the argument that it's a good thing, it's not worth the paper it's written on because Brazil, India, China and Russia aren't involved in it. If you're talking about counterfeiting, there's no point in doing it if China isn't involved.
I guess those guys are the kings of counterfeit stuff. Are there any countries that aren't signatories but who will be affected by it? Say, if you're from Mexico and carry out copyright infringement against a US company, can you then be extradited?
Well, that's what we're facing right now. Richard O'Dwyer, a 23-year-old student from Sheffield Hallam, is facing extradition and a ten-year sentence in US jail for setting up a website called TV Shack. TV Shack only produced links and as far as we can see it's not even illegal in the UK, but he's facing extradition. The US is already throwing its weight around. You can get a longer sentence for copying Michael Jackson songs than the doctor who killed him. That's the reality we're living in.
What's more dangerous to a free internet, ACTA itself or the precedent it will set for similar clampdowns in the future?
Well it sets the agenda of the pro-copyright fundamentalists in stone. Because it's an international agreement, if we ratify this in the UK, we can't get back from it again without breaking an international treaty.
I've also heard there might be border control searches of laptops and iPhones?
The language is vague enough for it to happen. Leading European law academics have said that in terms of border control it goes way beyond current EU law.
If you have customs officials searching computers on behalf of Sony or Disney, you've essentially turned a civil issue into a criminal one, right?
Exactly, it's a huge shift. It unleashes the copyright cops.
Would setting up new businesses be more difficult?
It will kill innovation. To do proper due diligence if you want to start up a new Facebook, or a new Twitter, or a new Flickr… you'd have to be crazy, actually, if this came in. You'd need an army of lawyers to make sure you can comply.
It seemed to me that everyone has a responsibility to block everyone else with ACTA, whether you're an ISP, a website, or user.
Yes. The point is that, now, everyone is in the frame. Everyone will basically be fighting to cover their own back, which will stop anyone taking risks, leaving it up to the bigger companies to be dominant. It also comes down to criminal sanctions for 'aiding and abetting' copyright infringement, which is a pretty broad thing to wanna punish people for.
In your opinion, do you think the money coming from the RIAA, PhRMA and other big American lobbying groups is the best place for the internet to focus its anger, or does the responsibility ultimately lie with the law-makers?
It's clearly the big entertainment lobby that's been pressing for this, on all sorts of levels nationally as well as internationally. But the people you have to hold responsible are your politicians. What's hugely frustrating is it seems again and again that there's nobody in politics who has a background or understanding in how the web functions. One of the criticisms of SOPA was how little input there was from people with a technical background. Obviously you're going to make crap laws, if you don't get people to tell you what they'll mean.
If ACTA is blocked by the EU, what would happen to the agreement in other countries like the US or Japan? Would it be the end of ACTA?
It would certainly leave it in a very difficult position. They would be left with a treaty that is even more useless. It would essentially become meaningless, so the stakes are high.
Even if ACTA fails to be enacted, are these issues going away?
Digital rights are going to be hard fought probably throughout this next decade. SOPA was a significant victory, but it hasn't gone away. There are still things like the Digital Economy Act lurching inexorably towards us like an evil zombie. But it's becoming obvious that backing bills like this can be poisonous, politically.
Thanks Loz. Have a good protest!
And with that we both disappeared into a sea of Guy Fawkes masks.
Later, I spoke to a journalist from a major TV news carrier present at the protest. He told me that his bosses had been trying to get politicians in to talk about the ACTA issue for weeks. None of them would, though; the whole of Europe's political elite are on lock-down. Either they can sense the tide's changing and are avoiding political fall-out, or they're doubling down efforts to force ACTA through, burying their heads in the sand while everyone's looking for a stone to sling.
If that's the case, expect to see more of this on your streets.