Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The gathering storm

I make no apology for using Sir Winston Churchill’s title for the first volume of his history of the Second World War to describe the culture war between those who would capture ideas for their exclusive use and those who would disseminate them widely.

It’s not a straightforward issue. On the one hand, most of us would accept that there is value in providing an incentive to create clever things that ultimately benefit many people. That’s the public good argument for copyright and patents. On the other, our culture and our technology are built on the work and ideas of others and controlling people’s access effectively controls our development as a species.

These are important matters that need a global consensus. What I’m seeing at the moment is an attempt to enclose the commons of ideas for the benefit of a few and to detriment of us all. That’s been the case for a century at least, but the arrival of the Internet has pushed things to a whole new level.

That brings me to ACTA, the treaty being negotiated in secret by our government and others, which is at least partly about the interaction of copyright and the Internet. I’ve railed against the secrecy around ACTA before, because it prevents the ordinary people whose lives will be affected from having a say in it.

There have been some remarkable revelations about ACTA in the last few days. Firstly, there have been three leaks. The text of the Internet chapter, an analysis of some countries’ views on transparency of the agreement, and an analysis of each country’s negotiating position on the Internet chapter of the draft ACTA agreement. We don’t know where the leaks are coming from, but it’s clear that many people negotiating the agreement are unhappy with the insistence of secrecy coming from (we now know) the US, South Korea and Denmark.

Nat Torkington has analysed the New Zealand positions from the latest link. New Zealand’s negotiators are pushing for clarity, for reasonableness and for transparency. Good on them. It looks as though New Zealand is making its view more felt than many other countries. Even so, what we end up with, of course, is not just up to New Zealand.

People in our government are listening about the lack of transparency. Our negotiators have just issued a call for submissions on some points of the Internet chapter ACTA by 31 March. This, coupled with the leaks, offers ordinary people a chance for some kind of say. So does the PublicACTA event to be hosted by InternetNZ on April 10th, right before the next round of ACTA negotiations which are to be held here in Wellington the following week.

It’s good that we have found out more about ACTA – even if it is mostly through unacknowledged “leaks”. It’s good that New Zealand is pushing for transparency. We need to empower our negotiators and those in like-minded countries to reject the extreme positions that some of the other countries are taking. Do consider sending a submission, even if it’s just “the current model works well, don’t change it”. I’ll write some more detailed points and publish them here well before the deadline.

However, it’s still appalling that a treaty that will affect everyone is being negotiated in secret, with an agenda being pushed by one industry based mainly in one country which won’t let the secrecy be lifted for fear that other countries’ citizens won’t let them stay in the negotiations.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We’ve had a glimpse of it. Let’s throw the curtains wide.

posted by colin at 11:49 am  


  1. Thank you for your great contribution to the debate. I can’t tell for sure about the climate for debate down south, but up here in Denmark (one of the countries pushing for secrecy) the press seems struck with silence, the politians know nothing of the negotiations or even who’s representing whatever stand point our current government is taking.

    I’ve been in contact with a member of the opposition stating, that they had to call a closed meeting with government officials to even get them talking on the subject, and they are in no way allowed to refer directly to the meeting being held.

    ACTA is a farce! We should never accept secrecy! If the interests involved are honest and the cause good, the people will vote in favour of ACTA – the secrecy only reveals, that some are trying to push this through without consent from the majority. Shame on them all!!!

    We need a global, public initiative. I encourage everyone to fight this.

    Comment by Mikkel Andersen — 5 March 2010 @ 6:09 am

  2. Thanks, Mikkel.

    To me, the secrecy is the most appalling part of the whole process. The leaks give you a chance to embarrass your government if so choose by publicising its desire for secrecy.

    During the protests about French nuclear in the South Pacific a few years there was a poster going round which read: “S’il n’est pas dangereux, pourquoi ne faire pas à Paris?”. The analogue for ACTA might be something like: if this treaty will bring Denmark such benefits, why not tell us all about it?

    Good luck!


    Comment by colin — 5 March 2010 @ 7:20 am

  3. Je sais :)

    I do however believe, that the reason for the apparent danish support is not due to benefits, but more importantly because of ‘historical relations’ and the fact, that our current government is sucking up to big bro’ AKA USA. We’ve seen such actions many times before, concidering different treaties and especially engaging in warfare. Often and almost always in contrast to other supposedly likely minded european countries.

    I’m working hard on going against the ACTA, since I’m defending human rights and since I’m a journalist as well – If ACTA pulls through in anything near the fashion of which it has been presented, it will put tight restrains on the freedom of speech and the methods whereby we’re working in the moderne age.

    The digital rights enforcement methods and the liability of third parties are in my opinion the greatest threat against critical journalism in the western world. As i wrote, however, it seems the danish press is either ignorant or indifferent to the ACTA-negotiations which is rather ironic – Danish journalists spent years (and still spending) defending the right to publish a load of rather silly cartoons, but once we hit more severe repercussions to freedom of speech, they’re dead silent :)

    I’m not trying to climb onto a pedestal here, but I will however maintain the struggle to create public awareness.

    Loads of regards

    Comment by Mikkel Andersen — 5 March 2010 @ 8:31 am

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