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Who's afraid of ACTA? Nobody, it seems

An 'almost final' draft of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement has been released - and many around the world are breathing a sigh of relief.

The extreme secrecy surrounding the ACTA negotiations, the last round of which concluded in Tokyo last week, had fuelled speculation that the anti-piracy pact would introduce sweeping new powers designed to protect the interests of big business.

The talks brought condemnation this week from members of the European Parliament, who feared they might be cut out of the treaty's ratification process.

Many of ACTA's most feared provisions have withered away in the 24-page document (be warned, it's a PDF) published today, which amounts to a substantial climbdown by US negotiators, who had been pushing for draconian measures against illegal file-sharers and other copyright infringers.

Internet service providers will be especially pleased to note that the treaty does not make them responsible for copyright infringements committed by their subscribers - although a still-disputed provision in the fifth section of article, dealing with 'Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights in the Digital Environment' suggests that individual states introduce such legislation themselves.

For the moment, though, ACTA simply requires ISPs to take action to "effectively address" copyright infringement issues.

Another cause for muted celebration is that unlike earlier leaked drafts, ACTA no longer includes provisions from the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal for manufacturers to sell devices that can be used to circumvent digital rights management (DRM) systems.

The text still includes a vaguely-worded ban on tools specifically designed to unlock DRM technologies - but a footnote makes it clear that manufacturers won't be obliged to make sure their products comply with DRM restrictions.

Canadian academic Michael Geist, who dubs the watered-down deal "ACTA ultra-lite" makes a detailed dissection of the draft's provisions in a blog post here.

All of which has left some commentators wondering why the negotiators wasted three years of time and effort to create a toothless treaty to which countries such as China, home to a vast proportion of the world's piracy, aren't even signatories.