President Obama is on a diplomatic tour of Asia this week and one of his top priorities is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that includes restrictive copyright enforcement measures that pose a huge threat to users’ rights and a free and open Internet. In particular, he's seeking to resolve some major policy disagreements with Japan and Malaysia—the two countries that have maintained resistance against some provisions in the TPP involving agriculture and other commodities. Despite some reports of movement on some of the most controversial topics during meetings between Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Abe, it seems that the TPP is still effectively at a standstill.
As negotiations continue to be shrouded in secrecy, the Pacific trade deal faces mass opposition both inside and outside of the U.S., and reports say little progress has been made for many months. State leaders and trade delegates have held dozens of closed-door meetings to discuss possible trade-offs and concessions over various tariffs and regulations, including some of the most controversial copyright enforcement provisions in the Intellectual Property chapter. Based upon the leaked text published by Wikileaks in November, several countries are resisting the extreme U.S. proposals on Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Internet Service Provider (ISP) liability.
This pushback is great news, and it comes thanks in large part to users around the world contacting their lawmakers and asking them to question and oppose TPP's secretive corporate-driven agenda. A new campaign this week called Stop the Secrecy collected users' petition signatures and messages about the TPP from various public interest groups; the final tally came out to over 2.8 million actions that have been taken over the last two years. The campaigners are projecting their message to “stop the secrecy” on U.S. capitol buildings. The aim is to get lawmakers and trade delegates to realize that if the agreement progresses, thousands of these users will be ready to stop it again in its tracks.
Following massive blows to the Fast Track bill introduced in January, many Senators are maintaining their stiff opposition against handing over trade authority to the White House. Under Fast Track, also known as Trade Promotion Authority, lawmakers would be limited to an up-or-down vote, and shirk their responsibility to hold proper hearings on its provisions. Republican Senator Roger Wicker has openly stated that he “couldn't be less optimistic” about any progress being achieved during Obama's trip to Asia. In an op-ed published this week in the LA Times, three Democratic Representatives reiterated their strong criticism of the TPP, advising that no one should “blindly endorse” this agreement. In November, the New York Times had done precisely that, but they too have suddenly changed their tune—publishing an editorial this week that expressed their heavy doubts over TPP's objectives. They correctly questioned the administration's secrecy over the negotiations and wrote that the “Obama administration also needs to do much more to counter the demands of corporations with those of the public interest.”
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As long as trade agreements include digital copyright enforcement provisions however, it seems the content industry will do everything in its power to expand restrictive, anti-user policies. In March, we noticed that the Obama administration appointed a former SOPA lobbyist to join the team of negotiators working on the TPP. Now the revolving door continues to swing, yet again. The Motion Picture Association of America has hired Stan McCoy who, up until recently, had been the Chief Intellectual Property Negotiator for the TPP for five years. Despite the stalled TPP talks, the MPAA is forging ahead—still very interested in securing their copyright interests in international trade agreements.
While the President and his U.S. Trade Rep, Michael Froman, are determined to push the agreement forward, reports say TPP countries are not convinced that Obama will be able to rally the political support needed to pass a Fast Track bill. If it doesn't grant Fast Track authority, Congress can pick apart and question every aspect of this sprawling trade agreement. TPP countries are unwilling to make potentially harmful concessions to the U.S. if there’s a chance the agreement would simply be unraveled by Congress once signed. The conclusion of TPP therefore seems increasingly contingent upon the Obama administration getting Fast Track authority, and so far Congress has shown no indication that they're willing to give it to them.
Since Obama missed his self-imposed deadline to conclude the talks last December, there has not been a publicly stated timeframe for the agreement's conclusion. This means the TPP could remain in this secretive, political limbo for months. On the other hand, the enhanced secrecy of the talks amongst trade delegates could lead to a situation where a concluded deal suddenly emerges, but that could only happen if the countries are somehow able to overcome some major controversial issues.
As others have pointed out, the Obama administration only has itself to blame for this mess. By listening to corporate demands above all else, it has alienated itself from its own political party, public interest groups, and most of all, the people whose interests it is supposedly meant to represent. Unless the U.S. trade rep radically changes its approach to this agreement—to make the negotiations truly transparent and incorporate substantive input from the public, for starters—it seems the President is going to be stuck defending a bad deal and a bad process. As long as the TPP remains a secretive process driven entirely by narrow interests, we'll do everything we can to make sure it goes nowhere.