In a move that could delay ratification by more than a year, the European Union has announced  that it has suspended ratification of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a move that acknowledged both the public outcry regarding the accord and the legitimacy of the public’s concern.

Commissioner Karel De Gucht stated in the announcement:

We are planning to ask Europe’s highest court to assess whether ACTA is incompatible — in any way — with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and information or data protection and the right to property in case of intellectual property.

Supporters of the pact argue that its purpose is to create an international standard to protect creators of film, television, music, fashion goods and the like from copyright infringement. Opponents reply the accord is a thinly veiled attempt to censor free speech and the internet.

ACTA has been in the works for years, with many industrialized nations (including the United States, South Korea, and Japan) already have signed on. For the EU to be a party to the agreement, all 27 European member states would need to ratify it.

Response to the measure has echoed the response to SOPA in the United States, with internet blackouts and protests occurring throughout the European Union. A primary complaint of opponents has been the secrecy surrounding the  negotiations on the agreement. The largest protests have occurred in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Belgium. Each of those countries withdrew public support for the pact following the wave of protests. Besides demonstrations in person, protests have taken to the blogosphere to show their displeasure, as occurred in the U.S. against the SOPA legislation.

The EU’s referral of this accord to its highest court is one of the first public, governmental acknowledgments of the potential free speech violations inherent in the agreement. The court will have to determine if the agreement is at odds with the EU’s fundamental rights. The move by the EU will likely cause a significant set-back in the proposal’s consideration, though the European Parliament is still set to formally debate it in June.