After European defeat, ACTA is down… but not out

European legislators struck a huge blow against the controversial international piracy agreement ACTA on Wednesday, voting the proposals down by a huge margin — with 478 votes against and just 39 votes in its favor.

But, although the result appears to leave the treaty on the canvas, campaigners should be wary: it’s not quite finished yet.

ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, is a multinational treaty aimed at curbing the global trade in counterfeit goods of all sorts, and has been the subject of frenzied negotiations (most of them secret) since at least 2008. Supporters say it is intended to harmonize copyright law across much of the world but, over the last few years, however, critics have been attacking for what they believe is a fundamental infringement of civil liberties, particularly when it comes down to digital copying.

Among its most egregious points, they argued, was the radical expansion of copyright law in ways that went far beyond existing national laws. ACTA’s concept of what constituted “commercial” copyright infringement had  broad implications, and it would also make it illegal to circumvent DRM. Over time, the proposals were watered down — for example, the clause allowing border security to search your computer or iPod for copied music was dropped, for example. But many of the most controversial elements remained.

Championed by the European Commission, officials continued to work on the proposals and, by the beginning of this year, the European Union had already signed up in principle, along with countries like the United States and Japan. But as the moment drew closer when Europe would be asked to ratify the treaty — the move that would actually end up with it becoming law — concerns and criticism grew stronger and stronger.

In the wake of the successful SOPA protests in the US, many felt empowered and the movement really culminated in huge protests in Poland and elsewhere in January, where thousands turned out on the streets to make their feelings known.

That added to pressure from influential committees — and by the time the vote came around today, it was roundly rejected by EU parliamentarians.

Some of them celebrated their victory:

But although the vote means that it’s unlikely that ACTA will rise again, it is worth realizing that it is not necessarily dead, either.

European trade commissioner Karel De Gucht — who had been lobbying hard to push the vote through in favor of the treaty — has already said he is so committed to getting ACTA working that he is prepared to come back with an altered version at a later date:

“If you decide for a negative vote before the European Court rules, let me tell you that the Commission will nonetheless continue to pursue the current procedure before the Court, as we are entitled to do. A negative vote will not stop the proceedings before the Court of Justice.”

And although Europe has reject the treaty, it could still end up being ratified by the other signatories — Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the U.S. are all in the frame. Six of them would need to ratify the treaty in order to put it into effect.

Perhaps it’s worth heeding Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake’s thoughts:

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