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Targeting digital piracy

Industrialized nations mull enforcement rules that could affect Internet providers

SAN FRANCISCO — Several dozen industrialized nations are quietly negotiating new rules to crack down on everything from illegal downloads of digital music to unlicensed knock-offs of brand-name goods.

The vehicle for this international assault on software piracy and trademark infringement is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The talks include the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Canada and members of the European Union.

The most contentious part of the negotiations involves efforts to control digital copyright violations. Online activist groups worry the accord will subject Internet service providers and Web hosts to new rules requiring them to scour their networks for software pirates. “Just because you host a website doesn't mean you have to play copyright cop,” said Sherwin Siy, an attorney with the group Public Knowledge in Washington, D.C.

The closed-door nature of the negotiations has also alarmed Internet activists.

But in early April, the secrecy surrounding ACTA (which the Bush administration began in October 2007) eased a bit when the United States Trade Representative released a summary of the proposed agreement. USTR officials said the move “reflects the Obama administration's commitment to transparency.” The move also eased pressure from outside the U.S.: Canadian officials, as well as the European Parliament, have asked for the process to be made more public, according to Canadian law professor and Internet expert Michael Geist, who has written about the issue.

The scope of the proposed agreement transcends digital piracy. For instance, in one document made public by the USTR, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, representing power supply makers, said counterfeit extension cords not only cost its 430 member-firms money in the form of lost sales, but also caused safety dangers.

But digital piracy is a central concern. Its costs were spelled out in another document made public by USTR.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance — whose 1,900 U.S. members produce everything from software to movies to textbooks — said copyright-protected products account more than 6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and have created more than 5 million jobs. “The theft of copyrighted creative content — in both hard goods and online — severely undercuts the ability of U.S. creators,” the group said.