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You are here: Home Campaigns ACTA Why The Firm, Simple Declaration Against ACTA

Why The Firm, Simple Declaration Against ACTA

by Richard Stallman Contributions Published on Jun 11, 2010 04:02 PM
UPDATE: ACTA is a proposed multinational enforcement treaty. It has not been ratified by any country besides Japan, and has been rejected by the European Union. Therefore, we no longer consider ACTA a threat. But there's a new threat out there, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Read more about TPP and take action!

ACTA (1), a treaty designed to attack the rights of computer users in some 40-odd countries -- and others later -- is encountering increasing opposition. ACTA threatens, in a disguised way, to punish Internet users with disconnection if they are accused of sharing, and requires countries to prohibit software that can break Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), also known as digital handcuffs (2).

In advance of a secret meeting of government representatives to plan the attack, New Zealand citizens organized their own public meeting, PublicACTA, to criticize it. The attendees published the Wellington Declaration, calling on the ACTA negotiators to reject several injustices that they suspected might appear in the treaty.

This event was a milestone in the fight against ACTA. But even though I would support each of the declaration's objections to ACTA, it makes two major concessions that I cannot put my name to.

The Wellington Declaration properly condemns the plan for ACTA to prohibit devices that can break digital handcuffs. It then undermines that position by suggesting that a limited prohibition, along the lines of Article 11 of the WIPO Internet Treaty, might be acceptable. This limited prohibition would give government backing to certain kinds of digital handcuffs. To accept this much -- without even a fight -- almost begs the ACTA negotiators to try for more.

The decision might have been intended to minimize the alteration requested in ACTA. That approach would be appropriate for a different kind of situation, but not for this one.

When we ask a favor of someone that doesn't owe us one, it behooves us to make it as small and easy as possible. That also usually increases the chance it will be granted. But that is not the case here. When we oppose ACTA, we are not asking our governments for a favor. Defending our freedom is their reason for being, and we demand it by right. We should not "compromise" by volunteering to cede some of our freedom so that they have less to do.

The other point I cannot bring myself to accept is the declaration's praise of WIPO as a "public, inclusive and transparent" forum for negotiating agreements about copyrights and various other unrelated laws. I don't recall seeing WIPO become a force for good in the world.

It is true that WIPO's procedures are not as bad as ACTA's mostly secret negotiations, but that's the best thing one can say about WIPO. Its use of the propaganda term "intellectual property" (3) reflects its tendency to frame issues with a view towards restricting people more. Its actions follow that tendency: WIPO treaties about copyright in recent decades have specifically targeted the freedom of people who use published works. To transfer the ACTA negotiations to WIPO would perhaps make the result less bad, but would hardly ensure it is good. Let us not ask to be taken out of the fire and put back into the frying pan.

Any time there is a proposal to change things for the worse, the obvious way to oppose it is to campaign for the status quo. To campaign for the status quo suggests the approach of singing its praises; thus, praising WIPO is a natural way to highlight how ACTA is a step for the worse.

However, where there have been previous changes for the worse, lauding the status quo tends to legitimize them. The past 20 years have seen global waves of harmful changes in copyright law -- some promoted by WIPO. To confront a further assault by presenting the status quo as ideal means we stop fighting to reverse them. It means that our adversaries need only propose a further affront to our rights to gain our acceptance of their last affront.

Instead of making the status quo our ideal, we should demand positive changes to recover freedoms already lost. For instance, many countries already have laws restricting devices that can break digital handcuffs; these must be repealed. WIPO treaties demand such laws; countries that have signed these treaties must withdraw from them. To stop ACTA from requiring such laws is just one battle in the fight to eliminate them.

The two points mentioned above are the only substantive points I disagree with, but they are very important points.

Aside from these points of substance, there are also points of wording. The Wellington declaration repeats some of the copyright industry's propaganda terms; it says "protection" for restrictions, for example referring to digital handcuffs as "technical protection measures". In spelling out the official name of WIPO, it repeats the term "intellectual property" without anything to reject its implications. These points of terminology are not as important as the substance, but they influence the public's thinking, and that makes a difference.

They also affect the tone of the declaration. Use of these terms caters to the way the supporters of a repressive ACTA frame the issues. The overall tone avoids a forceful confontation with the politicians who seek to impose unjust laws through ACTA.

Those politicians serve the big music and movie companies. They intend to impose what those companies want -- first on 40-odd countries, then on the world. They won't heed civic-minded suggestions offered in a reasonable spirit that assumes their good will; their response to the Wellington Declaration shows that. We will have to stop them. To build a movement to stop them, we need to say, "Join us and fight!" Therefore I have written a firm and clear declaration of opposition to the aspects of ACTA that threaten our freedom.

Whether or not you have signed the Wellington Declaration, I invite you to sign this declaration calling for firm, simple limits on ACTA.

Part of ACTA is intended to take stronger action against commercial international trade in goods that infringe copyrights or trademarks. I am not in general opposed to that. Other parts of ACTA propose repression against the public. That must not be allowed.

Current copyright law is too restrictive, and so in some fields is patent law. They interfere with or prohibit activities that ought to be allowed. We must aim to abolish these restrictions, but if ACTA stays away from these issues, we can let it pass.

Thus, this declaration calls for removing the repression from ACTA, or rejecting it entirely.

See and sign the declaration here.


  1. ACTA's official name is "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement", but the term "counterfeiting" in this context is a distortion of the word and a misrepresentation of the issues. Copies of files made when users share may be prohibited unjustly in some countries, but they are not "counterfeit" in any sense. We should not legitimize that misrepresentation by referring to ACTA by its official propaganda name. Therefore I refer to it only as "ACTA".

  2. For the campaign against Digital Restrictions Management, see

  3. For an explanation of the propaganda term "intellectual property" and why we should reject the term, see

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