What ACTA Taught Us in 2012

Last week I wrote a potted history of the defeat of ACTA in the last year. I mentioned that in the original talk, whose slides I embedded in the article, I concluded by trying to draw some wider lessons about fighting attacks on the Internet and broader freedoms. Here's a summary of what I said.

one thing leads to another

One of the most remarkable aspects of the defeat of ACTA was that it was unplanned in the sense that there was no grand design about how this would be achieved. Instead, as I described in the previous article, a sequence of quite disconnected events led cumulatively to the final vote in the European Parliament. It's hard to say which of them were indispensable, and whether everything that happened was necessary for the final result, or whether some were more important than others. But what is striking is the way that a distant event like SOPA fed into the Polish protesters' plan, and how that then spread throughout Europe until the overwhelming majority of MEPs felt that voting against ACTA was the right thing to do.

small pieces loosely joined

One implication of this is that no matter how small, everyone's contribution was important because it helped to create a cumulative pressure on politicians. Whether marching in the streets, writing blog posts, sending emails or simply tweeting, the sheer quantity of activity was crucial to establish the political importance of the resistance to ACTA.

we have the technology

Related to this point is the use of new tools like blogs, microblogs and social networks. Of course these aren't really new in absolute terms, but they are still leading edge when compared to what those pushing ACTA have at their disposal. Where they use digital media, they tend to do so clumsily. Using technology properly gives something of a countervailing advantage to those who are otherwise at a huge disadvantage when it comes to availability of economic resources and access to those in power.

we have the brains

Another reason to make the most of the technological means available is because the quality of the arguments being used against ACTA was generally high. Again, this is probably a function of the fact that people campaigning against the treaty are generally lacking in other resources – money, notably – and were therefore forced to compensate by deploying the most effective arguments in the most skilful way. The very power of the forces ranged behind ACTA allows them to get away with lazy arguments, poorly deployed: they can overwhelm simply by spending more or by abusing the political power they possess. In a sense, this is selection of the fittest applied to the political environment.

the joy of texts

Arguments against ACTA were particularly effective because the text was to hand – first as leaks in the early days, and then in official versions. That made it possible to criticise the proposals in detail and to devastating effect. Indeed, when I spoke to the second ACTA rapporteur , David Martin, shortly before he made his recommendation to the European Parliament, it was striking that he mentioned most of the key elements that I and many others had been warning about in the weeks preceding. I'm sure he was quite capable of reaching those conclusions himself, but I also bet he had read quite a few comments saying the same thing as he was exploring the issues around ACTA.

Contrast this with the other dangerous treaty that is floating around at the moment: the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP). There we have only partial leaks of the treaty, which makes it extremely hard to make killer comments about its flaws. That's doubtless one of the key reasons why the US in particular is doing everything it can to stop the publication of any draft versions: it doubtless knows that once a text is available, it will be possible to point out its problems in a way that will be hard to argue against. Letting TPP opponents shadow box against clauses that may or may not be present in the treaty is a wonderful way to dissipate their energy and to keep them on the back foot. That, in turn, means that getting hold of recent copies of the whole TPP draft treaty remains a priority.

publish and be damned

A crucial way of using technology and getting arguments across is through written analysis in the form of blogging, tweets and Facebook posts. The traditional media tend to look down on all three, but that's more a reflection of their inability to comprehend new forms of journalism than of the true worth of such services. Time and again, Twitter gets information out faster than any other system. Similarly, bloggers – either from major organisations, or individuals – often provide the first deep analyses of new pieces of information or events as they emerge. And, finally, Facebook for all its faults has a huge reach, and is often the ambient application in which people, especially young ones, spend most of their day.

Moreover, once things start circulating in blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the mainstream media is more or less forced to see what all the fuss is about, and to cover the issues raised. All that is needed is a kind of critical information mass travelling through these channels. That's why it's so important for people fighting against things like ACTA to blog and tweet often. The constant criss-crossing of news, rumours and opinions among groups of people using these different services creates a kind of matrix of information that can redefine how others view things significantly.

keep politics out of it

This might seem strange, since many of the issues surrounding ACTA are inherently political. But one of the real lessons from the hugely successful ACTA marches was that keeping political signs and flags away created an evident unity: this was a protest against ACTA, not simply in favour of traditional political goals that ACTA happened to impinge upon. Moreover, the more politicised the criticism, the easier it is to dismiss it as just the usual complaints of the usual troublemakers. If, by contrast, the focus is on the manifest flaws of something like ACTA, it is not so easy to brush off the criticism.

united we stand

Finally, a key lesson is that however weak and powerless people might feel when going up against entire industries and determined politicians, working together in the ways described above, and drawing inspiration from each other makes things like the defeat of ACTA in the European Parliament possible. This year turned what was once optimistic theory into triumphant reality.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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