The New Zealand government released the final text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the White House followed suit hours later. The massive trade deal, which includes 12 countries and 40% of the world’s economy, has been shrouded in secrecy until now. Parts of the deal have been leaked along the way, but it’s the first time the public has had a chance to read what may become the the most broad reaching trade deal in history if all the interested countries ratify the treaty. The agreement has enormous implications for global labor, food and product safety, access to affordable medications, the environment and much more. For a look at how the TPP agreement would affect the internet and what access to redress would look like under the corporate-driven agreement, FSRN’s Shannon Young spoke with Evan Greer, Campaign Director of Fight for the Future, a group best known for its advocacy of an open and neutral internet.
Shannon Young: First, can you describe your initial reaction when you read through the text of the TPP trade agreement?
Evan Greer: I’d say, upon reading the text this morning, I was shocked by not surprised. We’ve been concerned about the TPP for years and now that we can actually read the text, it’s clear why it was kept in secret for so long. Particularly the intellectual property chapter reads like a laundry list of demands from unpopular industries, where they’re pushing for policies that they know they could never get through if they were done through traditional political means or in the light of day. So from our perspective, the TPP poses a grave threat to people’s online freedom of speech, access to information, and basic things like access to medicine and affordable healthcare. And we’re very concerned, not only about the outcome, but about the process.
How would the TPP affect the internet as we know it?
The TPP contains extreme provisions that benefit copyright holders in ways that could lead to widespread internet censorship. It’s very similar in scope to the very unpopular legislation SOPA, that was resoundingly rejected several years ago. And essentially what it does is it forces the United States’ broken copyright system on the rest of the world without expanding protections for freedom of speech and so-called ‘fair use,’ which are basically provisions that prevent copyright from being used to censor or take down legitimate content or criticism or political dissidence from the internet.
So, a few specific things that I can jump into: There’s an article in the TPP that will extend the required term of copyright protection for all member countries to 70 years past the creator’s death. Now, this is going to keep an enormous amount of information, art, and creativity out of the public domain for decades longer than is necessary, and basically will allow governments to abuse copyright laws to censor online content at will, since so much of it will be copyrighted for so long. The TPP also contains huge handouts for pharmaceutical companies. It will allow companies to patent ‘new methods of using a known product,’ which basically allows for pharmaceutical companies to patent something almost forever by kind of creating a cascading array of patents around how to use things that are already out there.
Back to the internet, it undermines our anonymous ability to express ourselves online by requiring governments to keep a public database of real names and addresses associated with top level domains, such as .us or .ca if you’re in Canada. This is really dangerous, particularly for the ability of opposition groups to speak out without fear of violent retribution. That’s just a few of the things that are in there.
Another one I guess I’d quickly point out is that it criminalizes, or further criminalizes rather, whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. And potentially could even make it illegal for journalists to report on documents that whistleblowers expose. So, really, through and through, the TPP is threatening not only to the internet and our online free speech, but to democracy as a whole.
And this text is coming to light right after the US Senate passed an internet bill known as CISA – and both Mexico and the UK introduced new internet legislation. Do you think these legislative movements – all within a week of each other – are part of efforts to bring national laws into compliance with the terms of the TPP?
You know, I think there’s a battle raging right now for the future of the internet in general. And, both governments and large corporations, and even non-governmental institutions, like the UN, are all vying for control over this platform. And I think what’s critical is that internet users around the world recognize the truly democratic potential that the internet has and the power that it gives ordinary people to speak out and affect their governments. And I think that it’s something that we need to fight to defend, regardless of which governments are attacking it. And certainly the US is one of the most egregious, but really, the internet knows no borders and internet users need to unite around the world to fight these types of policies.
One provision that’s also been raising plenty of eyebrows online has to do with the Investor-State Dispute Settlement. Can you explain what that is and what the concerns are?
Sure. So Investor-State Dispute Settlement is one of the most terrifying components of the TPP. It essentially allows corporations to sue governments in order to strike down laws that they feel threaten their profits or potential future profits.
So imagine a country passes a law that prevents copyright holders from taking down information without a court order. A company could then sue that country in an international tribunal and force them to take down that law, even though it benefits the public interest. You can imagine this in a number of other scenarios, like companies suing a country over environmental or worker protections, for example.
But it basically, what the ISDS does – that’s the Investor-State Dispute Settlement chapter – is it gives companies more power than governments to set local regulations that should be decided upon in a democratic way. And these tribunals are incredibly non-transparent; the people who will be making the decisions often come from the industries that they’re supposed to be regulating. It’s going to be a blatant revolving door that benefits only multinational corporations, and not anyone else.
Ok, we’ve focused on criticism of the deal. Can you now point to something that’s beneficial to people or clearly in the public interest?
EG: I would be hard pressed to finding something in this deal that is in the public interest. You know, I think most of the things that are being lauded as benefits are really just disguising the broader concerns, which is that, again, policy of this type should never be made in this type of secrecy. So my understanding is there may be something in here that would prevent countries from requiring source code of software, for example, so if Microsoft wants to sell software to Vietnam, Vietnam can’t demand that they expose their source code to them, which could be a potential privacy concern. That said, that also benefits the United States government by preventing countries from being able to infect the source code of US made products that may or may not have an NSA back door.
So, many of the things that could be seen as benefits are really often just disguising the fact that all of this policy is being made in a way that doesn’t benefit the public, because it keeps the public out of the debate until the very last minute, when it’s going to be almost impossible to change anything in this agreement, which is why we at Fight for the Future are opposing it and will be organizing a grassroots resistance to bring it down in its entirety.
What exactly is Fight for the Future doing to try to stop this deal in its final stages?
We’re organizing a massive coalition of web organizations, of tech companies, grassroots groups from across the political spectrum that will be mounting an online campaign to fight this. And what we’re going to be doing is making tools that make it incredibly easy for people to email and call their legislators. That’s where this fight is going now.
President Obama has already made it clear that he intends to sign this deal, but he needs to get approval from US Congress in order to get it done and it’s very contentious there. It faces opposition from both Republicans and Democrats.
So it’s very important that everyone speak out and Fight for the Future and other groups will be working on a site – fightthetpp.org – to make that possible and make it easy for people to get their voices heard on this issue before it’s too late.