The European Commission said today that it has asked the EU's highest court to rule on the legality of a controversial treaty covering copyright, counterfeiting and Internet freedom.

The EU executive "decided today to ask the European Court of Justice for a legal opinion to clarify that the ACTA agreement and its implementation must be fully compatible with freedom of expression and freedom of the internet," said a statement.

The United States, Japan and Canada are also among signatories, but a number of mainly eastern European states have threatened not to ratify the treaty, which critics say could curtail Internet freedom.

In Malta, the treaty has been submitted for consideration by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and has not yet been referred for ratification.

The European Commission has defended ACTA against accusations that it amounts to a witch hunt against individuals illegally downloading content and has vowed to try to keep the deal alive when it comes up for ratification later this month by the European Parliament.

"Let me be very clear: I share people's concern for these fundamental freedoms... especially over the freedom of the Internet," EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht told a news conference in announcing the decision.

"This debate must be based upon facts, and not upon the misinformation and rumour that has dominated social media sites and blogs in recent weeks," he added.

He said the agreement "aims to raise global standards for intellectual property rights" and said ACTA "will help protect jobs currently lost because counterfeited, pirated good worth 200 billion euros are currently floating around."

However, there appeared to be differences of view even within the Commission.

Viviane Reding, the EU's commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship had shortly earlier flagged up on Twitter a statement of her own in which she said "cpyright protection can never be a justification for eliminating freedom of expression or freedom of information."

She underlined: "That is why for me, blocking the Internet is never an option."

Twenty-two of the 27 EU states signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on January 26 in Tokyo.

Since then, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania have said they will not ratify the pact.

Slovenia's newly-appointed government also said last week it was considering freezing its ratification of the accord signed by the previous government in January.

European Parliament president Martin Schulz has called the pact "unbalanced" and difficult to accept in its current form, and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic last week it could undermine freedom of expression.

An EU negotiator said a rejection by one EU state or parliament could bury the whole project.

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