Friday, December 04, 2009

Time for openness on ACTA

Both Labour's Clare Curran and United Future's Peter Dunne are calling for an end to the secrecy around negotiations on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. I agree with them. While ACTA is supposed to be about counterfeited goods - fake viagra and pirated DVDs - but after lobbying by wealthy media companies with deep pockets and privileged access, it seems to be morphing into a wider attempt to impose US-style copyright policies (universal DRM, anti-circumvention measures to subvert fair use, guilt by accusation, and forced cooperation by ISPs if they want to avoid liability) without any democratic mandate or oversight.

That's simply not acceptable. Quite apart from issues of democratic accountability, copyright law is a fundamental part of the modern information economy. And we shouldn't be changing it - and therefore what sorts of things we can do in that economy or what sort of future we can have - without proper debate. And that means involving the public, not rich lobbyists in overseas back rooms, who have quite different views on e.g. whether you should be allowed to write free software or give away music for free, whether there should be public libraries, or whether you should be allowed to travel internationally without having your iPod searched at the border by customs to ensure you've paid for every single track on it (though how they're meant to determine that is anyone's guess).

But I'd go further than Curran and Dunne and extend this principle generally. Just as governments should not be making domestic policy in secret without our oversight, they should not be negotiating international agreements (which affect our domestic policy) either. Such processes should be subject to the full scrutiny of the public, the media, and the Official Information Act, so we can see exactly what our politicians are signing us up for, and force them to change their minds if necessary. Anything less is simply undemocratic, and calls the legitimacy of those agreements fundamentally into question.

This goes against the grain of the international negotiating culture, which favours secrecy as a way of keeping their backroom deals and bullying quiet and sees the public as dirty peasants who must be kept in the dark lest we object. But so much the worse for them. We should, as we have done in other areas, take a stand for our democratic values and open up all our international negotiations to full public scrutiny. Because we are not peasants, but citizens.