|By: Jessica Meyers|
|Choose an acronym — SOPA, ACTA, TPP.
Whether a legislative proposal or a trade agreement, Internet rights groups are framing the issues in much the same way: a global threat to free speech and privacy. They’ve cast content providers as repeat players in a battle over the future of intellectual property.
The current manifestation is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiations with 11 Pacific Rim nations meant to revolutionize digital trade and set the tone for future agreements.
As the closed-door talks reach a critical stage, activists are resurrecting the past to influence the present.
TPP discussions predate successful efforts to take down anti-piracy legislation known as SOPA or a multinational treaty strengthening IP standards labeled ACTA. The U.S. signed the anticounterfeiting deal but stopped short of ratifying it. And these talks include a wider swath of issues, ranging from textiles to agriculture. But the IP section, a draft of which has been leaked, could present similar challenges as negotiations intensify this year.
“TPP is the new ACTA,” said Maira Sutton, a global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s very much biased to Hollywood and would ratchet up copyright enforcement at any cost.”
Her group recently sent out a petition letter urging the administration not to “trade away our digital rights.”
The talks have snagged recent attention with Japan’s decision to participate, an impending announcement on a new U.S. trade representative and public cries from Senate Finance Committee leaders to ensure IP protections. The 17th round of talks will take place in Lima, Peru, next month, with a goal to conclude negotiations by the end of the year.
That looks unlikely.
Opponents say the agreement would result in restrictive provisions that force Internet service providers to police the Web, embolden media companies to remove content, hinder innovation and upend laws in other countries. They see the closed-door conversations as a violation of transparency.
“The negotiators from the U.S. will listen, but without transparency being a two-way street, there’s no way to know it we’re having an impact,” said Jodie Griffin, a staff attorney with Public Knowledge, a consumer protection group that advocates for open Internet. “We don’t see a balance based on the text we have access to.”
They’re up against a swath of pharmaceutical industries and business interests that see these talks as critical to opening markets in the world’s fastest-growing region.
“If someone has not made his or her views known, it is not because of lack [of] opportunity,” said Greg Frazier, the Motion Picture Association of America’s executive vice president. He pointed to eight public comment hearings, stakeholder sessions in almost all of the 16 negotiating rounds, and opportunities to seek meetings with the office of the U.S. trade representative.
Frazier called pushback on the IP component “a stalking horse for those who oppose or don’t understand a balanced copyright system.”
Even those who tend to side with rights groups have said little publicly.
USTR officials insist they can’t make the talks public because of their sensitive nature. Acting Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis, in his written testimony to the Senate Finance Committee last month, instead said the agency will “continue to build on our unprecedented direct engagement with stakeholders” and “maintain open channels of communication for public feedback on all aspects of the TPP.”
Marantis, who spoke at a hearing on the president’s 2013 trade policy agenda, highlighted aspects that would “for the first time in any U.S. trade agreement, obligate TPP parties to seek to achieve an appropriate balance in their copyright systems in providing copyright exceptions and limitations for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research.”
Critics view the exceptions as token.
“We believe free trade is great and takes into account everybody, but that is not what is going on,” Sutton said. “These countries have to trade away flexibility in IP for other markets that currently have strong lobbying power.”
Both sides are arguing about tentative language in a deal that has not been made. But TPP backers say the provisions mirror U.S. copyright law and resemble principles already approved by Congress in last year’s Korea Free Trade Agreement.
“The TPP is another chance to keep that momentum going with the inclusion of intellectual property standards that foster innovative business,” said Jasper MacSlarrow, executive director for International IP at the Global Intellectual Property Center of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Senate Finance Committee leaders have also thrown support behind stronger IP provisions. Part of the concern centers on the players. Member countries such as Vietnam and Peru have more fluid requirements.
“Given the significance of TPP, and with countries like China and India watching closely, the United States cannot afford to get this wrong,” Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wrote in a letter to Marantis late last month. “We strongly urge you to ensure that the TPP achieves comprehensive, strong, binding and enforceable intellectual property provisions.”
Online activists have found fellow dissenters among those concerned that patent provisions would affect access to medicines. And tech companies have kept an eye on e-commerce discussions.
But this may present Internet groups’ greatest challenge yet.
“This is about the U.S. taking and maintaining a leading role in the global discussion and making the case that free trade between countries produces optimal outcomes in society,” said Stephen Ezell, a senior analyst at The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.
“This is about, really, the future of U.S. trade policy
Pacific trade deal alarms free Internet activists