The G-8 began negotiating the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in 2008, during the last few months of the Bush administration. Ostensibly, this agreement intended to strengthen copyright law enforcement among Western nations. According to this English-language report from Russia Today, though, that enforcement will come through massive confiscation of laptops and personal music players — and the new American administration won’t answer questions about it due to “national security” concerns.

Conspiracy theory or reality?

In extreme secrecy from the public, the Obama administration is hammering out an international copyright treaty with several other countries and the European Union.

Under the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), governments will get sweeping new powers to search and seize material thought to be in breach of copyright.

While the Obama administration calls these secretive plans a development of “national security,” Richard Stallman, a prominent American software freedom activist, calls it a secret “war on sharing”:

“Because we wouldn’t like it if we knew, they are trying to do policy laundering,” Stillman says. “Democracy gets bypassed and they can do to us whatever they want. I can only guess that it’s going to be nasty, because if it weren’t going to be nasty, they wouldn’t need to keep a secret”.

Up until now, the breach of copyright has been a civil matter. The Obama administration seems to now want to criminalize it.

After watching the video, I tried searching for information on ACTA. I found nothing from the usual mainstream media sites like the New York Times, Washington Post, or LA Times. I did find this mention from the Telegraph last July:

IPods, mobile phones and laptops could be examined by airport customs officials for illegal downloads under strict new counterfeiting measures being considered by G8 governments this week, it is claimed.

The measures form part of an international agreement aimed at stamping out piracy, but there are fears that individuals who have illegally downloaded songs or video clips on to MP3 players and phones for personal use could also be caught out. …

So far, little has been revealed about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement being considered by the G8 nations, apart from a mention in the organisation’s “Declaration on the World Economy” published this week.

Backing the development of the new agreement, it said: “Effective promotion and protection of Intellectual Property Rights are critical to the development of creative products, technologies and economies.”

A group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation has tried to get information on ACTA, but the Obama administration rebuffed their FOIA request on national-security grounds:

The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is withholding hundreds of documents about a secret intellectual property enforcement treaty currently under negotiation between the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries.

In a pending federal lawsuit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Public Knowledge are demanding that background documents on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) be released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But the USTR has claimed that more than 1300 pages should be withheld because they implicate national security or expose the USTR’s deliberative processes. The USTR has released only 159 pages for public viewing.

ACTA raises serious concerns about citizens’ civil liberties and privacy rights. The contents and text of ACTA remain secret, but a document leaked to the public last year shows that ACTA could include stronger criminal measures, increased customs border search powers, and requirements for Internet service providers to cooperate with copyright holders. Some public suggestions from content companies have included requiring ISPs to engage in filtering of their customers’ Internet communications for potentially copyright-infringing material, mandatory disclosure of personal information about alleged copyright infringers, and adoption of “Three Strikes” policies requiring ISPs to automatically terminate customers’ Internet access upon a repeat allegation of copyright infringement.

It appears something is going on with ACTA, but few places want to cover it.

As a writer, I believe in copyright law.  However, I don’t think that it should become a criminal matter, and I certainly don’t think the American government should have the right to search computers for anything other than acute security concerns while traveling through airports.  The government should check to make sure that computers aren’t bombs or hiding knives or other weapons when taken on board airplanes as carry-ons; I think few people object to that.  However, if the Obama administration (and the Bush administration before that) proposes to have computer inspectors spinning up our hard drives to see if we have any unacceptable data on them, they’d better have a search warrant and probable cause — because the USTR and the White House can’t bargain away the Fourth Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment, for that matter.

I’m very curious as to how a trade agreement qualifies as a national-security concern, too.  That seems rather odd to me.  Copyrights have nothing to do with national security, but national security makes a good excuse to shield unpopular actions from public scrutiny.

Conspiracy theory?  Something is happening here, but what?  Maybe our national media might take an interest in it at some point so we can find out exactly what the G-8 intends to do in the name of copyright enforcement.  It might be nothing but spitballing at this point, but this kind of effort belongs in the sunlight, not in the dark.

I have contacted the White House for comment on this story, and I’ll report back in an update if and when they respond.

Update: Still no response from the White House on this (at 1:30 pm ET), but the USTR office has 29 documents, mostly press releases, on ACTA.  I’m told by HA reader Scott that the USTR usually refuses comment on active negotiations, but do they always claim “national security” concerns to do so?

And yes, I agree with many commenters that Stallman isn’t the most confidence-inspiring guy to believe that there’s more fire than smoke here.  Still, I’d like to know what our government is contemplating with ACTA.