BRUSSELS (AP) -- The European Commission, facing steep opposition, has suspended efforts to ratify a new international anti-counterfeiting agreement -- instead referring it to Europe's highest court to see whether it violates any fundamental EU rights.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said Wednesday that an opinion from the European Court of Justice would clear away the fog of misinformation surrounding the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, known as ACTA.
"This debate must be based upon facts and not upon the misinformation or rumor that has dominated social media sites and blogs in recent weeks." De Gucht told reporters in Brussels.
The decision appeared to reflect recognition by European Union officials of the political obstacles that have arisen. Protests against the agreement were staged earlier this month in several European capitals -- including Berlin, Helsinki, Paris and Vienna -- by critics who say the agreement would stifle free speech and access to information.
For the EU to be a party to the treaty, all 27 member states would have to ratify it.
ACTA has been under negotiation for years and has already been signed by a number of industrialized countries, including the United States, South Korea and Japan. Its drafters say it is needed to harmonize international standards to protect the rights of those who produce music, movies, pharmaceuticals, fashion goods, and a range of other products that often fall victim to piracy and intellectual property theft.
EU officials say the agreement will change nothing in the bloc. They insist what was legal pre-treaty would remain legal the day after, and what was illegal would remain illegal. But they have said the EU must ratify it as an example to other countries where intellectual property rights are less protected than they are in the EU.
However, opponents fear ACTA would lead to censorship and a loss of privacy on the Internet.