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Trading Away our Digital Rights: More Nations Join TPP as the Next Round of Negotiations Approach
The next round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement negotiations will take place from December 3-12 in Auckland, New Zealand, and it will be done with the same level of secrecy as the last 14 rounds. And like all of the previous rounds of talks, it will take place in a luxury venue, only this time in a high-end casino, that itself is embroiled in its own controversy over corrupt dealings.
As TPP talks trudge along with ever more Pacific nations participating in the meetings, our alarm over its intellectual property (IP) provisions has only grown. The IP language in this intricate trade agreement would harm users’ digital rights in profound ways, such as pressuring ISPs to become Internet cops and criminalizing the distribution of DRM-circumvention tools even for fair uses. It also attempts to protect temporary copies, against the logic of how the Internet works. The U.S. content industry has lobbied for this language just as they did with the SOPA and PIPA bills early this year. In doing so, they continue to demonstrate the same significant disregard for consumers as they did when they cooked up harmful provisions within those U.S. bills.
The TPP is one of many venues that powerful content groups like the MPAA and RIAA use to pressure governments into legally institutionalizing their unbalanced control over culture, art, and information at the expense of the public. The text remains under tight wraps and all we know about its contents come from leaked drafts. But public interest groups are continuing to fight the secrecy. Several local and international organizations will be at the negotiations putting on events for civil society groups and trade delegates. InternetNZ is putting on an music festival and EFF, along with InternetNZ and KEI, is hosting a Digital Rights Camp for Asian-Pacific organizations.
More Countries to Join the Upcoming Round
The number of countries involved with TPP continues to grow, and there is no indication that its expansion will slow any time soon. Last month, Canada and Mexico joined the agreement and both will be represented at the next round in December. However, they joined as “second-tier” negotiators, which means that they will have to agree to sections negotiated over the previous 14 rounds of talks without even seeing the text in advance. As more nations join the talks, it is likely that newcomers will be unable to alter or have a say over any of the language that has already been drafted or agreed to by consensus by the negotiating states.
There is notable resistance coming from within Canada. Civil society groups, experts, and legislators have already indicated strong opposition to the existing drafted text (at least what they know about it from leaked versions of the text). Canadian public interest organizations are especially resistant to their joining the negotiations, in light of a recent copyright reform bill that was negotiated after years of attempts to reform the existing copyright law. The new Canadian legislation struck a balance between society and private interests, to reach pragmatic provisions that acknowledge users rights. All of the language that was hard-fought for in the law, Bill C-11, would be thrown out the window if Canada were to sign on to TPP. As it stands, the trade agreement contains much more restrictive, pro-rightsholder language on copyright and enforcement. EFF, the StopTheTrap coalition, and Tamir Israel are putting a letter to Canadian authorities urging them not to accept the U.S. proposals on copyright and enforcement.
The next country to join TPP negotiations may be Thailand. During Obama's four-day visit to several Southeast Asian countries over the weekend, he made a brief stop on Sunday and announced that the U.S. "welcomed Thailand's interest in the TPP" at a joint news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Due to a 2007 amendment to the Thai Constitution, any treaty that has an immense effect on the economic or social security of the country or results in the binding of trade, requires National Assembly approval to enter talks, as well as extensive public consultations following a treaty's conclusion. Therefore it may take some time until Thailand can officially join the negotiations.
This would mark the first time the two nations will participate in trade talks together since the failure of a U.S.-Thailand free trade agreement (FTA) under the Bush administration in 2006 amidst strong domestic public opposition. In 2007, the Thai Human Rights Commission published a harrowing report describing how all the ways it would have endangered the rights and well-being of Thai people, and Thai civil society groups are now already resisting Thailand's entry into the TPP. Given the lack of success in settling trade ties with Thailand, however, and the repeated appearance of Thailand on a yearly trade-sanction-threat list called the Special 301 Watch List, getting them on board with the TPP has likely been a high priority for the U.S.
With regard to Japan, the news over when and if they will be joining TPP any time soon remains speculative. While some U.S. and Japanese business leaders have repeatedly expressed its desire for Japan to enter the talks, domestic political complications make its entry no easy task. Still, despite strong opposition to the TPP by various Japanese industry sectors, Prime Minister Noda may use the agreement as an election issue in attempt to gain favoritism among the business community and to distinguish himself from the long-powerful opposition party that threatens to overtake him in December’s federal election.
U.S. Remains Committed to Forging Ahead With TPP
While trade was not one the primary issues raised during the U.S. election season, it is clear that the Obama administration intends to forge ahead with TPP in the coming term. Many argue that strengthening trade ties with Pacific nations is part of a broader U.S. strategy to establish itself more prominently to counteract China’s growing economic influence in the region, and to pressure them to either join or adopt similar intellectual property reforms contained in the TPP.
State representatives are continuing to place pressure on the executive to increase transparency in the negotiations and to uphold the public interest with the trade agreement. This week, a group of state legislators met with Deputy U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Demetrios Marantis and Assistant USTR Barbara Weisel to reiterate their worries that the TPP talks could constrain state government policies. In light of statements from the USTR earlier this fall, it’s clear that U.S. trade representatives are taking notice of Congressional demands and concerns.
The Obama administration will undoubtedly move forward with these confidential, close-door meetings until they can eventually conclude TPP, despite its many promises to paving a new road towards transparent government. The content industry has been unfortunately very effective in getting what they want from our public representatives, and will continue to spend its resources to ensure that this complacency continues. As long as the public remains passively ignorant of these efforts, these special interests will continue to whittle away at users’ rights in more and more countries. The way to fight back is to make our voice heard: to demand an open transparent process that allows everyone, from experts to civil society members, to analyze, question, and probe any initiatives to regulate the Internet. The secrecy must be stopped.