Chances are you’ve never heard of ACTA. It’s not something that’s likely to come up in polite conversation; it has never been mentioned on Crikey. Indeed, I’d suggest the only chance you’re ACTA-aware is if you have a close personal involvement with  somebody who spends a lot of time playing with their PC late at night. (Yes, that’s a polite way of saying you’d probably need to be shagging a geek.)

I know this to be true because I’m at what’s undoubtedly the geekiest place in the Southern Hemisphere right now: 2010, the annual gathering of Australian Linux enthusiasts. With commendable broad-mindedness, this year’s event is actually taking place in Wellington. Yes, in New Zealand. You’ve probably heard of it.

You might just have heard of Linux, the open source operating system favoured by people who know Windows is too unstable and Macs are too expensive. If you haven’t, just imagine a random mixture of your work IT department, some super-enthusiastic students and some scarily clever people, and a penguin mascot. There’s about 700 Linux supporters in Wellington this week, and they know more about technology than you (or I) will ever manage.

But back to the main issue. When ACTA got mentioned during a keynote presentation by NYU anthropology professor Gabriella Coleman, the audience reaction was instantaneous: much booing and hissing. This crowd knew that the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement was potentially very bad news. But that bad news hasn’t been passed along much, even though a crucial meeting to decide the future of the proposal will take place next week.

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(It’s on Australia Day and in Mexico, so local news coverage is likely to be slim, I’d predict.)

The ACTA proposal has been spearheaded by the US government, which apparently doesn’t think its existing draconian proposals in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which Australian copyright law largely mirrors, thanks to the 2004 Free Trade Agreement) go far enough. The proposal has been debated at a series of meetings between stakeholders since 2007, and while confirmed information is fairly scant, earlier leaked documents suggest that as well as covering physical piracy, ACTA will try and enforce copyright in the digital realm, meaning the same kind of ISP-level meddling that’s associated with current internet censorship proposals in Australia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a page about the treaty on its website, which is at pains to emphasise that it’s not designed to facilitate any of those “teenager fined millions for downloading song” headlines, which us geek journalists love.

“The participants in ACTA negotiations do not intend for the ACTA to target individuals, the privacy of individuals or the property of individuals where those individuals are not engaged in commercial scale trade in counterfeit and pirate goods,” it primly notes. At the rate music sales are plummeting, copying a single track might soon count as commercial-scale trading, but I digress.

What DFAT doesn’t discuss at all is the highly secretive nature of the treaty process, something Coleman made much of in her presentation. As she pointed out, a prolonged legal campaign by the Electronic Freedom Foundation in the US did eventually result in 159 pages of documents associated with the treaty being released — but only after 1362 had been deemed as potentially violating “national security” and withheld. Open government seems to be playing second fiddle to the demands of the IP protection crowd, which counts deep-pocketed software makers and movie studios among its most verbal supporters. Third-world countries are conspicuously absent from the discussion.

For what it’s worth, Coleman — who has spent years observing geeks in their natural habitat, arguing with each other via various internet media — isn’t entirely convinced that ACTA spells inevitable doom, assuming its provisions do eventually pass into law.

“We should feel optimistic about the current state of affairs, because never before have there existed such profound and robust alternatives to the global tangle of IP provisions,” she said. The “alternatives” she’s referring to are principally open source software such as  Linux, which is maintained by volunteers and can be altered and adopted by anyone, and the associated “copyleft” movement, which has given rise to phenomena such as Wikipedia

I wish I shared her optimism. I also wish that the geek community could do a better job of conveying the importance of these issues to the rest of the world. It’s all very well sitting booing and hissing, but in a room full of Linux lovers, the message is only being spread to the converted.

So far, the tech community hasn’t done much of a job of persuading mainstream Australia that proposed internet censorship laws are a bad idea, despite their potentially crippling effect on freedom of speech. Given that background, the odds of anyone else ever hissing at the mere mention of ACTA — which could pose just as great a threat — seem very low indeed.

Angus Kidman is a freelance journalist specialising in fairly geeky topics and editor of Lifehacker Australia.