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Trade agreement could turn border guards into copyright police

A new federal trade agreement could give border security officers sweeping powers of copyright enforcement, including search and seizure of laptops,…

A new federal trade agreement could give border security officers sweeping powers of copyright enforcement, including search and seizure of laptops, iPods and other personal electronic devices.

“It’s an attack on democracy,” said David Fewer of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.

A proposed provision of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement calls for customs officials to be given authority to “suspend import, export and trans-shipment of suspected (Intellectual Property Right) infringing goods.”

Details of the international trade agreement, involving Canada, the US and European nations, were anonymously leaked to the media in late May.

The four-page document suggested officials, such as border security guards, should be granted the power to “take action against infringers.”

That could mean issuing a fine or seizing electronic gadgets containing material they decided was a copyright violation.

“What you have on your iPod is your own business,” said Fewer. “You shouldn’t have to prove that you (legally) downloaded a song from iTunes to justify keeping your iPod when you cross the border.”

The agreement would also give authorities the power to act without prior complaint by right holders.

However, things that were considered private matters of civil enforcement should not become matters for public enforcement, said Fewer, citing the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic’s main point of opposition to the deal.

What were previously private file-sharing disputes could soon incur the involvement of government resources.

“Right now, it’s the ‘recording industry vs. the people’ … We don’t want that to become the ‘state versus the people,’ where all of these file-sharing matters become the realm of criminal law enforcement.”

“It’s a misuse of state resources and intellectual property statutes,” said Fewer.

The agreement does carry some useful measures to combat “real trade-debilitating activity” to which internet policy and public interest clinic is not opposed, said Fewer.

For instance, measures “to address large-scale illegal optical disk production.”

The clinic’s opposition relates to the more petty aspects of the agreement.

Government should look to combat massive pirating operations, not “someone downloading a TV show,” said Fewer.

“There’s a certain amount of wolf in sheep’s clothing that we have to pay attention to,” he said.

The proposed ACTA agreement has been largely absent from the mainstream news media.

“It’s a deliberate strategy to keep things very quiet and away from the public eye,” said Fewer.

As is typical with a trade agreement, it must first be signed, and then its provisions must be enacted into law by Ottawa.

According to Susan Schwab, the US trade representative, the United States and its ACTA partners are working closely to complete the new agreement “as quickly as possible.”

Under the current federal Copyright Act, manufacturers of blank audio media are charged a levy that is passed on to performers, authors and artists as compensation.

This levy does not apply to digital audio recorders.

When opening negotiations for ACTA were announced in the House of Commons in late 2007 by International Trade Minister David Emerson, it got a standing ovation from MPs.