While the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement sounds like a perfectly laudable effort to battle the production and distribution of knock-off perfume and handbags, the issue of intellectual property in the 21st century is a tad more complex. The ability that the internet has given us to share music, video, images and text makes it relevant to us all, and the fact that it's being negotiated behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny – in a manner quite out of step with other global treaties – is just one reason why the internet community is getting so worked up about it.
The indications are that it would reshape domestic laws of many of the signatory countries – a list that includes the UK but omits notorious offenders such as Russia and China.
Faced with the challenge of protecting the world's creative industries, these talks have, unimaginatively, adopted a threatening tone: third parties – ISPs, web-hosting companies, mobile-phone carriers, even universities – would be required to snoop on us for signs of illicit activity, or face the prospect of being sued by copyright holders. Individuals would lose their internet connection if merely suspected of copyright infringement, and face draconian penalties if convicted.
The absurdity of holding third parties responsible has been highlighted so many times that the parallels are almost clichés – landlords being liable for criminal activity by tenants, Royal Mail prosecuted for delivering a threatening letter – but the fact remains that complying with the requirements would have huge privacy implications and would effectively criminalise an entire generation. It's also unworkable: ISPs can't reliably discern between Hollywood movies and holiday movies, and halting file-sharing by changing the internet infrastructure is like a department store tackling shoplifting by removing all the lifts and escalators; it massively penalises everyone else, and merely forces offenders to find imaginative ways round the problem. And they will: there are millions of incredibly tech-savvy teenagers out there without much pocket money and with a colossal thirst for media.
File-sharing has been shown to decrease dramatically with the introduction of services such as Spotify that make media access simple. If half of the time and energy spent thrashing out such an out-of-touch crackdown were devoted to developing new media strategies, the future of creative industries would look a lot rosier.