USTR Thinks A Non-Transparent 'Public Interest' Committee Will Mollify Critics; It Won't
from the not-going-to-cut-it dept
We’ve been pointing out for years how the US Trade Representative is creating all sorts of problems for itself by its insistence on secretly negotiating trade agreements, in which only industry insiders and lobbyists are a part of the process and have access to the documents. The USTR has ridiculously tried to argue that it’s transparent because it will meet with anyone who asks, never acknowledging that hearing from people is quite different from sharing what the USTR is actually negotiating in our name. As we’ve said before, if the only way the American public can find out about what the USTR is negotiating in our name is because Wikileaks has released the documents, then the USTR is not being transparent. A few weeks ago, we noted some signs that the USTR was beginning to panic, as it realized that its bogus claims about transparency weren’t sitting well with Congress, and its hope to tie Congress’s hands via “fast track” or “trade promotion authority” is on life support.
For the first time, the USTR has kinda sorta admitted that its current process of only sharing the negotiating documents with industry lobbyists — something that even the strongly pro-business Bloomberg referred to as a “corporatist power grab” — isn’t necessarily in the public interest. In a speech, USTR Michael Froman announced the creation of a new “Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee” (PITAC):
I’m pleased to announce that we are upgrading our advisory system to provide a new forum for experts on issues like public health, development and consumer safety.
“A new Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee (PITAC) will join the Labor Advisory Committee and the Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committees to provide a cross-cutting platform for input in the negotiations.
“We are calling on NGOs, academics, and other public interest groups to submit their candidates to be founding members of the PITAC.
Of course, just the fact that they think they need a “public interest” advisory committee begs the question: are they admitting that until now, they just didn’t give a shit about the public interest? Aren’t they effectively saying that all of those other advisory committees they have, made up of big industry lobbyists, have been pushing them to screw over the public interest, in favor of short term protectionism and profits?
You’d think that the entire point of what the USTR does is that it should be negotiating agreements in the public interest, and yet as far as I can tell, they’ve now admitted that was never the case before, and now they seem to think that rather than being an overreaching aim of all trade agreements, that it’s one of multiple “competing interests.” In fact, this new proposal is actually exactly what the corporate lobbyists themselves had pushed for a few years ago, when the USTR started considering adding non-corporate representatives to the other advisory committees. The lobbyists balked at that suggestion, saying that, if anything, a separate second-tier public interest committee should be created. And that’s what’s now happened, with Froman pretending that this is some sort of huge move to benefit the public interest.
But, more to the point, this seems much more like a way to try to mollify critics by attempting to bring some of the most vocal critics of the lack of transparency “into the fold” (which will include strict confidentiality agreements), hoping that this shuts them up.
It takes an astounding amount of cluelessness to think that the proper response to a lack of transparency is to create another committee with secret access to the negotiating text.
While Froman also insists that he will be taking “new steps to broaden public information on the progress of negotiations,” including “an update on the status of negotiations,” that’s not the transparency people are asking for. They’re not asking for status reports. They’re asking for transparency on what the USTR is negotiating in our name (though, as now admitted, without any concern for “the public interest”).
Other parts of Froman’s speech were equally problematic. In it, he quotes the ridiculous statistic that “Intellectual property-intensive industries account for nearly 30 million American jobs” — ignoring, of course, that this number has been totally debunked multiple times over. The study this is based on lumped all sorts of jobs that have nothing whatsoever to do with intellectual property protections into the category of “intellectual property-intensive industries,” such that the leading such employer is grocery store employees. And, sorry, but the kid putting your canned veggies into a bag doesn’t have his job because of intellectual property law.
He also pretends that the USTR is supporting the exporting of fair use with the following statement:
… for the first time in any trade agreement, we are asking our trading partners to secure robust balance in their copyright systems – an unprecedented move that draws directly on U.S. copyright exceptions and limitations, including fair use for important purposes such as scholarship, criticism, news commentary, teaching, and research.
That’s misleading, at best. While it’s true that this is the first time the USTR has included any such provisions in a trade agreement, the actual language shows that it’s more about limiting fair use than expanding it.
He also tries to dismiss the concerns that TPP is somehow “related to SOPA.” He’s right. It’s not SOPA, but this statement is again misleading in the extreme:
The United States will agree to nothing in TPP that goes beyond existing U.S. intellectual property law.
Except… that Congress is currently debating major copyright and patent reform — and while the leaked proposals are mostly (though not entirely) consistent with US law, they would effectively lock in aspects of current law that many have suggested should be changed. That is, while it may not change that much today, it clearly would serve to block Congress from fixing the massive problems in today’s copyright and patent law. And the USTR doesn’t seem to even understand this — in part because the folks that it spends the most time discussing intellectual property with — the intellectual property trade advisory committee (ITAC 15) are pretty much all copyright/patent maximalists.
The speech is more of the same from the USTR. It makes a bunch of false and misleading statements, either out of ignorance or with the intention of directly misleading the public. The inclusion of this new “public interest” committee is a cheap ploy to try to buy off some critics with increased access, but does nothing to address the fundamental problems with the process and the agreement.