|The software industry generally supports the trade negotiations as a way of protecting their products [GALLO/GETTY]
A new trade agreement being negotiated behind closed doors by officials from the United States, European Union and other countries could drastically reduce internet freedom, a group of more than 70 legal experts have warned.
The government of Barack Obama, the US president, could initiate the far reaching Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) at the beginning of next year, without a vote in congress, leading critics to call it anti-democratic in a letter released on Thursday.
"In serious negotiations like this, where standards are being imposed, there should be some debate," Chris Sprigman, a law professor at the University of Virginia, told Al Jazeera.
"Instead the Obama administration has brought this to an international forum where there is no legitimacy."
Normally, trade agreements dealing with intellectual property and other crucial issues are dealt with through established international forums such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the United Nations.
These organisations, while frequently criticised, have established negotiating procedures and some degree of openness.
ACTA, however, is being negotiated by trade representatives in secret on a government to government basis, so critics say there is no accountability to the talks.
The agreement could force internet service providers to deny net access to people who repeatedly download content, lawyers have said.
The US and EU are promoting the agreement "at the bidding of content production industries" including Hollywood movie studios, record labels, software firms and drug companies, Sprigman said.
But the entertainment industry and other content producers say ACTA is crucial for protecting intellectual property, stopping digital piracy and stimulating new ideas and products.
"Increased broadband speeds and penetration make it easier to steal creative works through illegal revenue-generating sites around the world," US television and movie actors wrote in a March 2010 letter to Barack Obama in support of ACTA.
"American workers are … the most immediate 'victims' of rampant copyright theft over the internet - a threat which erodes their ability to earn a living," the actors wrote, applauding Obama for his remarks on "aggressive law enforcement" to "battle intellectual property theft".
Sprigman believes that large institutions who systematically infringe on copyright should be prosecuted, but the diffuse nature of the internet means arresting or charging average computer users who share content is a sign the government is going too far.
After facing mounting pressure over its negotiating tactics and secrecy, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) first released a draft copy of the agreement in April 2010.
"The idea of the text is to get countries to ratchet up criminal penalties for copyright infringement," Sprigman said.
If the agreement comes into effect, security forces in countries which sign on could be under more pressure to criminally charge individuals who download movies or music from the internet if they are infringing on copyrights, he said.
The USTR has not invited comments on the text from the public and the US government has blocked the release of updated versions of the draft agreement, lawyers say.
The most recent consolidated text of the proposed deal is on the USTR’s website and dated October 2, but lawyers say this text is the same as what was released in April.
Sprigman said he became an activist on this issue because the "Obama administration promised they would run an open government" but now they are "pushing this non-transparent back room deal".
"They did it this way because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to do it in the open," he said.
The agreement could come into effect at the beginning of next year.