How social media killed ACTA

July 6, 2012: 11:21 AM ET

The same forces that put the ill-fated SOPA bill out of its misery have done the same for a worldwide trade pact aimed at enforcing intellectual property rights.

FORTUNE -- The apparent death of ACTA, the media industry's latest attempt to control what can and cannot be done on the Internet should (but probably won't) be a wake-up call to the big copyright-owners and their political benefactors. Social media has become powerful enough to thwart their plans. And, their adversaries now have a method of quickly organizing themselves, an advantage they didn't have before.

The European Parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. It would have created standards for enforcing intellectual property rights across borders. ACTA would have applied not only to copyrights on media products like music and movies transmitted over the Internet, but also to trademarks and patents. So it also targeted people trying to move knockoff Gucci handbags and fake pharmaceuticals from one country to another.

There are two essential reasons for the widespread public outcry that ACTA has met with: the initial secrecy of the negotiations and the stunning vagueness of the agreement's language. The negotiations were held behind closed doors, without input from either the general public or from public-interest groups. And the terms were so murky that it was impossible to tell what enforcement tactics would and would not be allowed. Critics warned that it would have created what the Free Software Foundation called "a culture of surveillance and suspicion." One example, which the media industry called laughable, was that under ACTA, the content of people's iPods could be legally scrutinized at random by customs officials. Whether that's true or not is almost beside the point -- such warnings were taken seriously because the pact's vagaries left a lot of room for doubt.

MORE: Meet SOPA's evil twin, ACTA

In some ways, ACTA was similar to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two bills in the House and Senate, respectively, that were shelved early this year in the face of massive criticism from the public and the Internet industry. SOPA, in particular, also left people wondering what enforcement might look like. ACTA could similarly have made Internet service providers liable for what was transmitted over their networks. It might even have turned ISPs into IP cops by granting them "safe harbor" for collecting information on customers who were merely suspected of trafficking in unauthorized materials. And, critics said, like SOPA, there was no due process of law built into the pact.

Once some of the details of ACTA were revealed -- particularly the secrecy of the talks -- protests erupted. Those  came from both bad actors and good: People actually marched in the streets in places like Poland. And the online vandals of Anonymous launched cyber attacks against businesses and governments.

The speedy organization of all the protests, ad hoc though it was, was made possible by social media. Even five years ago, such a groundswell would have been difficult to achieve. Ten years ago, it would have been impossible. For good or ill (probably some of both), the ubiquity and ease-of-use afforded by the likes of Twitter and Facebook are making such actions possible. Politicians and owners of intellectual property would do well to keep that in mind as they try to create enforcement policies. A good start would be to more directly target profiteers rather than innocent third parties, and to ensure that any laws or trade agreements adhere to basic democratic principles, such as due process of law.

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