ACTA is the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a wide-ranging attempt to standardise international copyright laws, protect intellectual property and better care for business patents and the work of artists. That's what it says on the posters, at least.
The first thing to know about ACTA is we've already agreed to be part of it, whether you like it or not. The UK signed up to it, along with much of Europe at the end of January, while the US, Canada, Japan and many others have been onboard since last year.
The treaty hasn't yet been ratified by the EU, though, but that's scheduled to happen by around June of this year. If you care about stopping ACTA, that's how long you've got to work on your placards.
The big idea of ACTA in a nutshell, according to the European Commission's pages on the legislation, is to harmonise intellectual property rights around the world, making it easier for an author in France to call for justice against a pirate making copes available in Singapore.
Or making it easier for a man in Hollywood to stop you downloading Transformers, you might say.
However, the ACTA of today is not quite the beast it could've been. Earlier versions of the treaty contained provision for a "three strikes" rule, which could've seen particularly vigorous -- or unlucky -- file sharers lose their internet connections. That's now been removed from current version of the framework, as has a requirement for ISPs to monitor the traffic of its users.
In fact, much of the anti-ACTA content out there online seems to be based on these earlier versions of the act, and for once we ought to be grateful for the EU in standing up to the US and lessening the scope of the original demands.
The EU is also determined to battle the anti-ACTA internet crusaders as well. It's put together a PDF highlighting the 10 Myths About ACTA, correcting the many incorrect assumptions out there about the act. But this document itself is controversial, with anti-ACTA campaigners claiming it's full of half-truths and misdirection.
It's a very big mess.
The key worry for activists is the scope of ACTA. It aims to allow for enforcement of "infringement of copyright or related rights over digital networks" a term so vague it could conceivably apply to anything from sharing Spider-Man 4 or 5 or whatever we're up to now over Bittorrent, or simply uploading a copyrighted photo to your blog.
Another vague area is that of the fines that would be calculated for those found in breach. ACTA's wording states that wronged copyright holders can ask for "lost profits, the value of the infringed goods or services measured by the market price, or the suggested retail price" from those found guilty.
Value of goods and retail prices are one thing, but how would a company go about charging a user for the "lost profits" it suffered because some MP3s were downloaded?
Also, ACTA campaigners point out that despite claims ACTA wants to protect against large-scale piracy and IP theft, there's no actual stated minimum size in the policy document. So it's entirely possible individuals could be plucked out of the haystack to be made examples of.
Obviously we're not standing up for the rights of pirates to do as they wish here, but you can't help but feel worried when media companies are handed the right to set their own fines and aim their guns on anyone, even a casual stealer of only a handful of tunes.
...and includes the some clauses that put all that power in the hands of private companies...
Oh and how about this intimidating footnote in the ACTA document, which hints about ACTA giving the law the power to take your computer if you're deemed an offender:
"...judicial authorities have the authority to order that materials and implements, the predominant use of which has been in the manufacture or creation of such infringing goods, be, without undue delay and without compensation of any sort, destroyed or disposed of outside the channels of commerce in such a manner as to minimize the risks of further infringements."
And according to European Digital Rights, ACTA "would place the regulation of free speech in the hands of private companies" thanks to the way it asks non-governmental groups in charge of policing online material.
One of the most high-level tirades against ACTA has come from MEP Kader Arif, who was part of the ACTA committee. Arif resigned as the European Parliament's rapporteur of the ACTA agreement, saying in a super-aggressive personal news post: "I condemn the whole process which led to the signature of this agreement."
Arif then confirmed the feelings of many anti-ACTA campaigners, pointing out there was "no consultation of the civil society" and a complete "lack of transparency" during the four-year creation of the agreement.
He finished his attack on his own work by saying: "That is why today, as I release this report for which I was in charge, I want to send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation. I will not take part in this masquerade."
Amazing words. He's slagging off his own homework. We now have a man of ours onboard -- the new rapporteur is Scottish MEP David Martin, who says he will be "open and transparent in my deliberations" about whether ACTA implies with existing EU law.
You may well think ACTA is just the rest of the world trying to get excited about something and find an excuse for a good street riot like the Americans did with SOPA, but the more you read about it the more you recoil in horror at the thought of an internet censor machine run by copyright holders that can't be reasoned with.
The worry is that, as we've seen before with the UK's Cleanfeed ISP-level child porn filter which has since been turned to other tasks, ACTA could be used to censor web sites. Plus make one copyright claim and any content would have to be pulled.
Read more about ACTA and its implications over at the UK IP Office or get the view from Brussels via the EC ACTA site, or, if you really have the time, explore the full text of the ACTA agreement [PDF], but that last one's pretty heavy going.
Image credit: Stop ACTA