Vito Pilieci, Monday, May 26, 2008
OTTAWA - The federal government is secretly negotiating an agreement to revamp international copyright laws which could make the information on Canadian iPods, laptop computers or other personal electronic devices illegal and greatly increase the difficulty of travelling with such devices.
The deal could also impose strict regulations on Internet service providers, forcing those companies to hand over customer information without a court order.
Called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the new plan would see Canada join other countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, to form an international coalition against copyright infringement.
The agreement is being structured much like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) except it will create rules and regulations regarding private copying and copyright laws.
Federal trade agreements do not require parliamentary approval.
The deal would create a international regulator that could turn border guards and other public security personnel into copyright police. The security officials would be charged with checking laptops, iPods and even cellular phones for content that "infringes" on copyright laws, such as ripped CDs and movies.
The guards would also be responsible for determining what is infringing content and what is not.
The agreement proposes any content that may have been copied from a DVD or digital video recorder would be open for scrutiny by officials - even if the content was copied legally.
"If Hollywood could order intellectual property laws for Christmas what would they look like? This is pretty close," said David Fewer, staff counsel at the University of Ottawa's Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. "The process on ACTA so far has been cloak and dagger. This certainly raises concerns."
The leaked ACTA document states officials should be given the "authority to take action against infringers (i.e., authority to act without complaint by rights holders)."
Anyone found with infringing content in their possession would be open to a fine.
They may also have their device confiscated or destroyed, according to the four-page document.
The trade agreement includes "civil enforcement" measures which give security personnel the "authority to order ex parte searches" (without a lawyer present) "and other preliminary measures".
In Canada, border guards already perform random searches of laptops at airports to check for child pornography. ACTA would expand the role of those guards.
On top of these enforcement efforts, ACTA also proposes imposing new sanctions on Internet service providers. It would force them to hand over personal information pertaining to "claimed infringement" or "alleged infringers" - users who may be transmitting or sharing copyrighted content over the Internet.
Currently, rights holders must collect evidence to prove someone is sharing copyrighted material over the Internet. That evidence is then presented to a judge who issues a court order telling the Internet service provider to identify the customer.
The process can produce lengthy delays.
It is expected the new agreement will be tabled at July's meeting of G8 nations in Tokyo, Japan.
Fewer has been following the progress of ACTA and has exhausted every avenue at his disposal to gain insight into its details.
He said Friday's leak of a "discussion paper" which outlines the priorities of the agreement is the first glimpse anyone has into ACTA.
"We knew this existed, we filed an Access to Information request for this but all it provided us with was the title. All the rest of it was blacked out, " he said. "Those negotiations can take place behind closed doors. At the end of the day we may be provided with something that has been negotiated which is a `fait accompli' in which civil society gets no opportunity to critique it."
Fewer expressed concerns about the part of the proposal that calls for ACTA to operate outside of accepted international forums such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or the United Nations.
In the discussion paper, it is proposed ACTA create its own governing body and be overseen by a committee made up of representatives from member nations.
"This initiative is unprecedented," he said.
The ACTA discussion paper was leaked online by Sunshine Media, the company that runs the Wikileaks.org website - a whistleblowing website created to help circulate secret documents.
In October, International Trade Minister David Emerson announced Canada would participate in ACTA's creation. The initiative was originally aimed at stopping large-scale piracy, such as printing operations that make thousands of copies of movies that are still in theatres.
"We are seeking to counter global piracy and counterfeiting more effectively," said Emerson at the time. "This government is working both at home and internationally to protect the intellectual property rights of Canadian artists, creators, inventors and investors."
The new document is reported to be drafted by the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
A spokeswoman with the office refused to comment on the leaked document and directed all questions about ACTA to a short information circular about the initiative.
Michael Geist, Canada research chair of Internet and E-commerce law at the University of Ottawa and expert on Canadian copyright law, blasted the government for advancing ACTA with little public consultation. Geist said documents detailing ACTA's plans would not need to be leaked online if the process was open and transparent.
"That's what happens when you conduct all of this behind closed doors," he said. "The lack of consultation, the secrecy behind it and the speculation that this will be concluded within a matter of months without any real public input is deeply troubling."
Fewer and Geist said, once Canada signs the new trade agreement it will be next to impossible to back out of it.
In a situation similar to what happened in the Softwood Lumber trade dispute, Canadians could face hefty penalties if it does not comply with ACTA after the agreement has been completed.
The Department of International Trade did not respond to repeated requests for comment.