February 22, 2012, 2:10 P.M. ET
By LAURENCE NORMAN And BEN ROONEY
BRUSSELS—A new international treaty aimed at clamping down on pirated goods and counterfeiting that has generated protests across Europe will be referred to the European Union’s top court to determine whether it clashes with public freedoms.
In a surprise development Wednesday, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said it would refer the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement to the European Court of Justice for legal guidance on whether it is fully compatible with freedom of expression and freedom of the Internet.
The European Commission and the European Council of member states have already approved ACTA, which has faced prompted demonstration in a number of European capitals, including Berlin and Paris. The European Parliament is set to debate it formally in June. A number of senior parliamentarians have raised concerns about the treaty, and last week, Justice Commissioner Vivane Reding had publicly backed calls by some parliamentarians calling for an ECJ review.
ACTA is an international legal framework for targeting counterfeit goods, generic medicines and copyright infringement on the Internet. Critics say it endangers freedom of speech and privacy. Wednesday’s decision means ratification of the treaty, which took years to negotiate, could be by more than a year. The U.S. is among states from outside the EU that have also signed the agreement.
“We are planning to ask Europe’s highest court to assess whether ACTA is incompatible—in any way—with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and information or data protection and the right to property in case of intellectual property,” EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht said Wednesday.
The move won backing in the European Parliament, where there is concern over its impact.
Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, said the group’s main concerns related to copyright enforcement on the Internet and monitoring of activities online.
“Our group strongly supports the fight against counterfeiting goods. This is not only detrimental to industry and jobs but also to consumers. There is a need for greater international co-operation but we question whether ACTA would be the right tool to achieve this, particularly as several relevant countries such as China and India would not be included,” he said.
Mr. De Gucht said he continues to believe that the ACTA treaty strikes the right balance between ensuring protection of intellectual property and individual rights. And he said the standards set by ACTA are already applied in the EU so that “ACTA will change nothing about how we use the Internet and social websites today.”
A spokesman for Mr. De Gucht declined to comment on how long it is expected to be before the European Court of Justice responds to the Commission. A spokesperson for the ECJ wasn’t immediately available to comment.
There is a precedent for the EU’s move. In its fifty year history, the EU’s executive has asked for the ECJ to offer guidance on major issues more than a dozen times, including on the Uruguay round of world trade talks in the early 1990s
The delay for ACTA comes in the wake of similar controversy in the U.S. Attempts by U.S. legislators to introduce legislation designed to protect intellectual property online were withdrawn in the face of strong protest. The Stop Online Piracy Act provoked large scale opposition and in January plans to draft the bill were postponed.