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Reading the media coverage of the Polish anti-ACTA marches, and Kader Arif's resignation, there’s a lot of confusion about ACTA (Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement) and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). For example, I’ve read that ACTA is going to impose “SOPA-like blocking”. That ACTA is “Big Brother to” SOPA or  “even worse than” SOPA.   Is this the case?

Well, yes and no.  Both SOPA and ACTA have the same objective. That is to act against alleged copyright infringing material by blocking elements of the Internet.  But legally, the two work quite differently. They have a different legal basis.

ACTA, legally a ‘trade agreement’,  sets up  an international framework. As such, it  is non-specific, and subject to interpretation by individual countries. SOPA is a law under the United States legal code, and it gives instructions to US law enforcers, administrative and judicial bodies. .



SOPA  is about theft of United States property. It concerns websites and services located outside the United States, which may get visitors or traffic from within the US. That  means millions of websites worldwide.  Media and e-commerce sites will be hard hit. Small businesses (SMEs) in Europe, as well as  large social media sites,  will be affected.

 SOPA is about stopping websites being visible or trading  in the United States. And it’s about stopping American citizens from getting access to websites and services which are hosted outside the United States.

 SOPA  would punish websites which avoid confirming that they are not copyright infringing.

 SOPA would appear to give the US authorities carte blanche to police copyright worldwide.

SOPA  measures would  be applied  in the United States, administered by the US authorities, and judged against US intellectual property and copyright law.  An injunction would be applied in the United States. The foreign  website owner seeking to fight the injunction or mount a defence would have to do so under American law.

 SOPA provides substantively for a range of new anti-copyright measures targeting Internet  intermediaries. It appears to be primarily targeting hosting sites, and search or linking sites. Broadly, the measures  fall into three categories: domain seizures, stopping payment services and stopping advertising services.

 It would follow that websites outside the US would have to comply with US copyright and intellectual property law  in order to retain their audiences or their customers.

 SOPA would ride roughshod over the laws of the European Union and all other countries.

 SOPA is a law placed before a legislature, and has for the moment been put on hold.

The Protect IP Act, or PIPA has similar measures, but seems to avoid the language of ‘theft’.



ACTA is about any Internet content in any country.

 ACTA is a framework only. It does not mandate  any specific  web blocking measures, although such an intention may be interpreted from the text.  Any measures must be implemented under local laws. In the EU, it would be have to implemented by the Member States. It is down to the individual Member State to interpret ACTA in whatever way it chooses.

 ACTA is targeting Internet intermediaries too. It use the expression ‘third parties’. That means  ISPs too. ACTA’s intention is that ISPs can be asked to block web content using a variety of technical methods. ACTA could imply  measures targetted against hosting services,  domain registrars, payments and advertising services.

Under ACTA, there is room for a court to adjudicate, although the likely intention of the drafters is that there is no court involved. People would be able to defend themselves in their own country, under their own laws. Websites and services would have to comply with the law of the country in which they are based.

 ACTA implies the possibility for 3-strikes measures, although it does not say so specifically. It does contain provisions which would enable 3-strikes.

So ACTA will have broader scope in terms of measures, in particular because its measures would block ISPs as well as  hosting and search  services, but a narrower scope in terms of the legal jurisdiction which will apply. 

 What’s important is that compliance is at a local level. ACTA does not force global compliance with American intellectual property and copyright law, as SOPA does. Countries will still be able to have their own versions of copyright law. In spite of the efforts of the copyright industries, to the contrary.

 That doesn’t mean ACTA won’t create enormous havoc for the Internet. It will.  

 ACTA  does intend the blocking of web content by ISPs, and that is where the danger lies. Defence rights will almost certainly be eroded. If persued in anger, ACTA  risks  turning  the European Internet into a blocked and restricted  pseudo-interactive facility controlled by a few dominant corporations.

 ACTA was drafted by unelected civil servants  in secrecy.

 It is critical for policy-makers to understand the intention of ACTA,  and forget about the literal interpretations which are being used by its defenders.

  You may re-publish my article under a Creative Commons licence, but you should cite my name and provide a link back to Media and Academics – please cite as Monica Horten,  ACTA v SOPA: what’s the difference? 29  January 2012 . Commercial users - please contact me.

Iptegrity in brief is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I’ve been analysing analysing digital policy since 2008. Way back then, I identified how issues around rights can influence Internet policy, and that has been a thread throughout all of my research. I hold a PhD in EU Communications Policy from the University of Westminster (2010), and a Post-graduate diploma in marketing.   I’ve served as an independent expert on the Council of Europe  Committee on Internet Freedoms, and was involved in a capacity building project in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. I am currently (from June 2022)  Policy Manager - Freedom of Expression, with the Open Rights Group. For more, see About Iptegrity is made available free of charge for  non-commercial use, Please link-back & attribute Monica Horten. Thank you for respecting this.

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