The Senate today is holding a key procedural vote that would allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be “fast-tracked.”
So who can read the text of the TPP? Not you, it’s classified. Even members of Congress can only look at it one section at a time in the Capitol’s basement, without most of their staff or the ability to keep notes.
But there’s an exception: if you’re part of one of 28 U.S. government-appointed trade advisory committees providing advice to the U.S. negotiators. The committees with the most access to what’s going on in the negotiations are 16 “Industry Trade Advisory Committees,” whose members include AT&T, General Electric, Apple, Dow Chemical, Nike, Walmart and the American Petroleum Institute.
The TPP is an international trade agreement currently being negotiated between the US and 11 other countries, including Japan, Australia, Chile, Singapore and Malaysia. Among other things, it could could strengthen copyright laws, limit efforts at food safety reform and allow domestic policies to be contested by corporations in an international court. Its impact is expected to be sweeping, yet venues for public input hardly exist.
Industry Trade Advisory Committees, or ITACs, are cousins to Federal Advisory Committees like the National Petroleum Council that I wrote about recently. However, ITACs are functionally exempt from many of the transparency rules that generally govern Federal Advisory Committees, and their communications are largely shielded from FOIA in order to protect “third party commercial and/or financial information from disclosure.” And even if for some reason they wanted to tell someone what they’re doing, members must sign non-disclosure agreements so they can’t “compromise” government negotiating goals. Finally, they also escape requirements to balance their industry members with representatives from public interest groups.
The result is that the Energy and Energy Services committee includes the National Mining Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance but only one representative from a company dedicated to less-polluting wind and solar energy.
The Information and Communications Technologies, Services, and Electronic Commerce committee includes representatives from Verizon and AT&T Services Inc. (a subsidiary of AT&T), which domestically are still pushing hard against new net neutrality rules that stop internet providers from creating more expensive online fast-lanes.
And the Intellectual Property Rights committee includes the Recording Industry Association of America, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Apple, Johnson and Johnson and Yahoo, rather than groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which shares the industry’s expertise in intellectual property policy but has an agenda less aligned with business.
We’ve discussed more than a few times the awful precedent set by AT&T’s Sponsored Data effort, which involves companies paying AT&T to have their service be exempt from the company’s already arbitrary usage caps. While AT&T pitches this as a wonderful boon to consumers akin to 1-800 numbers and free shipping, as VC Fred Wilson perfectly illustrated last year, it tilts the entire wireless playing field toward companies with deeper pockets that can afford to pay AT&T’s rates for cap exemption.
So how will the FCC’s new net neutrality rules impact AT&T’s plans? There’s every indication it won’t. The rules are still a few years and a few legal challenges away from becoming tangible, and in the interim, the FCC is telling companies that none of the zero rated efforts currently in play should be impacted. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Norway, Chile and now Canada all realize the threat posed by zero rated apps and have passed net neutrality rules that outlaw zero rating. The FCC, in contrast, has consistently implied it sees zero rating as “creative” pricing.
That’s given AT&T the justifiable confidence to sally forth with its dangerous precedent. After all, injecting a gatekeeper like AT&T (with a generation of documented anti-competitive abuses under its belt) right into the middle of the wireless app ecosystem won’t hurt anyone, and has nothing whatsoever to do with net neutrality.