ACTA: a timely warning signal for more inclusive global policy

Posted on February 13, 2012 by

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ACTA protest in London

Last weekend, thousands of people took to the streets of freezing European cities to protest against ACTA. Typically, especially in sub-zero temperatures, only critical issues such as wars and social injustice could bring so many out of doors. Why did this issue, with its rather bureaucratic acronym (ACTA: Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) have such a public impact?

The first reason is the potentially draconian impact on the way the Internet is run. ACTA creates a back door for the censorship and control of the Internet.

The second reason, of no lesser importance, is the annoyance of the global public about the lack of transparency in negotiating ACTA. During its initial days, ACTA talks were carried out practically in secret. Under public pressure, ACTA negotiators started revealing information and made the process more accessible to the public. But in spite of these efforts, the public still views the ACTA process as secret, almost conspiratorial negotiations.

What are the main lessons from ACTA, for global governance?

  • In the Internet era, the request for more transparency and openness cannot be stopped at national borders. People are realising that it is not enough to put pressure on national politicians. Many decisions of vital interest are negotiated and made, somewhere else, in regional and global diplomatic bodies. Open government at national level will inevitably require more open diplomacy at international level.
  • Perception matters in global diplomacy. Once tarnished, the image of ACTA as a highly secret conspiracy could not be overcome, even with substantive improvements in the text and subsequent attempts to increase the transparency of the negotiation process.
  • Even if ACTA comes into force, it will face the problem of implementation. Increasingly, people do not feel comfortable following international rules on which they have had little influence. It matters more than in the past, because international rules are increasingly shaping the daily reality of the global population. For example, climate change regulation, through energy-saving schemes, may affect the way we prepare our food, move around in our daily activities, and heat our homes. Similarly, ACTA and other Internet rules could shape the way we use the Internet. These types of rules, rules that affect our daily lives, cannot be enforced simply by state coercion. They require broad legitimacy to have effective strength. The emerging slogan of global governance could well be ‘No implementation without participation’.

Modern diplomacy should start listening and e-listening more than before. The voices of people worldwide are getting louder, more coherent, and more strident via the Internet. They need to be heard and engaged in global negotiations. As The Economist wrote in its comment on ACTA: ‘Internet activists used to be dismissed as a bunch of hairy mouse-clickers with little clout. Not anymore.’

Obviously, we cannot expect the direct participation of millions of activists in diplomatic negotiations. The ultimate drafting of texts and striking of deals can only be done in limited circles of professional diplomats representing their countries. But sustainable and implementable agreements must reflect as wide a range of interest and views as possible.

Diverse e-participation tools and approaches are available to support this process of greater inclusion. The next step is to integrate e-participation more fully into the procedures and modus operandi of global decision-making bodies.  Hopefully it will be done sooner rather than later in a constructive and gradual way before it becomes a matter of urgency due to the deterioration of the legitimacy of and the trust in global public policy. ACTA is a timely warning signal.

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