Germany stalls on internet treaty

Berlin - Germany has delayed signing an international copyright treaty that has some internet users worried about online censorship, joining Poland and the Czech Republic in hesitating on the issue.

The Foreign Ministry said Germany held off on signing the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or Acta, "to leave room for discussions" after the justice ministry voiced concerns.

An official signature is needed before the deal can go to Parliament for approval.

Acta aims to harmonise international standards on protecting the rights of those who produce music, movies, pharmaceuticals, fashion, and a range of other products that often fall victim to piracy and intellectual property theft.

Detractors fear it will also lead to blocking of content on the internet and have planned demonstrations across Europe on Saturday.

Acta shares some similarities with the hotly debated Stop Online Piracy Act in the US, which was recently shelved by lawmakers after a swell of opposition that included Wikipedia and Google blacking out or partially obscuring their websites for a day in protest.

The US, Japan, South Korea and others say Acta is needed to fight the growing global trade in counterfeit and pirated material.

But Poland and the Czech Republic suspended the treaty's ratification last week following protests and attacks on government websites.

The justice ministry argues there is no need for the legislation in Germany and that the European Parliament should debate and vote on Acta before Berlin considers it.

The European Parliament is set to debate the legislation early this summer.

"We do not want... the possibility to block internet access because of copyright violations," Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said this week. "Internet providers are not auxiliary sheriffs."

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government, has long opposed state or corporate interference with civil rights, sometimes taking positions that have irked Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.

Germany's main industry lobby group, BDI, lamented the government's hesitation, saying it is damaging to "Germany as a country of innovation".

"The government must now take its responsibility and swiftly sign the agreement," BDI managing director Markus Kerber said.

But Internet activists welcomed the decision, while saying that planned protests against Acta will still take place on Saturday. About 50 protests are planned in Germany alone.

Germany's opposition Greens maintain that the Acta is a "repressive agreement" that "would curb the freedom of information on the Internet."

"We need a modern copyright that takes necessary legal protections into account and recognises the reality of the digital world," party leader Renate Kuenast said.

Activists of online platform STOP Acta say the deal "puts the regulation of freedom of speech in the hands of private companies because it forces third parties, such as internet providers to control online content."

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