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No Hits, Sherlock

Following the implosion of SOPA in the United States, Philippa White takes a look at its European successor.

The vast majority of people do not know much about ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or better yet, the European version of SOPA) but they do know that they are against it. They believe that if Minister Sherlock and the powerful corporations of the entertainment industry have their wicked way, regulation will change so drastically that the world can kiss goodbye to the Internet, as we know it. No more YouTube. Goodbye Wikipedia. So long Sidereel.

Dramatic it is. Completely inaccurate it is not. Scratching beneath the surface of the Agreement and taking a more nuanced look, it is apparent that ACTA is not only a poorly manufactured piece of legislation, but also one that could have a profound effect on the way the Internet is used and viewed.

Firstly, ACTA affords an excessive amount of rights to the copyright holders. If a website directly or indirectly infringes the copyright of another party, the penalty is not only that the illegal content on its pages is blocked but that the entire website is also blocked. For example, if a website were to direct readers to an illegal music-sharing site, the company whose copyright had been infringed would not only block this particular page but also the entire website, and it would cease to show up on a Google search or any other search engine. This is not only excessive but impractical. Due to the fact that online file-sharing sites are now ubiquitous, the new law could mean that many reliable and indeed legal sites could be toying with extinction if they are not scrupulously filtering their content on a continuous basis.

Another significant flaw in ACTA is the way in which damages are assessed. They are calculated based on the ludicrous assumption that for every illegal download that is made, the industry has lost one sale. This is a huge leap in terms of logic and one that would ensure that the middlemen of the entertainment industry – who, unlike the artists, are the worst hit by the arrival of digital downloads – can regain their handsome profit margins.

This justification for the far-reaching new legislation is dubious. The proponents of ACTA have primarily been from the entertainment industries, which claim to be losing money at a staggering rate due to the online theft of their products. However, it has been highlighted by opponents of ACTA that many chart-topping artists and other musicians have in fact been earning more since Napster and other similar sites have been created. Thanks to the file-sharing sites, music has become more accessible to an ever-growing audience, and this heightened publicity has not only brought increased profits to many musicians, but it has also produced a medium in which otherwise unknown artists can shoot to fame, Justin Bieber being the most obvious example.

Without any doubt, the Internet will eventually require regulation of some sort. However, ACTA is not the solution. The idea that entire websites could vanish due to having an indirect involvement in online piracy is simply nonsensical. It would hinder the development of what is arguably the greatest invention of our time and adversely affect significantly more people than it would help.

What many do not know is that we currently have some level of regulation in place to fight online piracy. For example, in 2011 Google received over five million complaints of breach of copyright. Their standard policy is to investigate the claim within six hours and then block the illegal activity from showing up on its searches if it is a bona fide claim. Although the proponents of ACTA may claim that this is insufficient protection for copyright holders, it is perhaps a more realistic option.

The Internet has brought with it a whole new way of life. The way in which information, art, ideas, movies and music are shared has been utterly transformed. Due to the ease with which perfect digital copies of anything can be made and shared across our planet with the click of the button, the Internet is the dazzling hub of activity and excitement that it is. We have conquered all corners of the globe and now the real growth is occurring upwards in the boundless expanse that is online. There are new rules and a whole new set of players. It may be time for copyright holders to throw out their old business models in favour of ones that embrace the reality of the age we live in. The digital age has not just brought a revolution; it has introduced a whole new world order.