For years now, we’ve been trying to understand why the US Trade Rep (USTR) is so anti-transparency with its trade negotiations. It insists that everything it’s negotiating be kept in near total secrecy until everything is settled, and the public can no longer give input to fix the problems in the agreement. It’s a highly questionable stance. Whenever this criticism is put to the USTR directly, it responds by saying that it will listen to anyone who wants to come and talk to the USTR. But, as we’ve explained multiple times, “listening” is about information going into the USTR. “Transparency” is about information coming out of the USTR. They’re not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination.
As the fight over new trade agreements gets louder and louder, a key stumbling block is having Congress approve so-called “fast track authority” or “Trade Promotion Authority,” which basically means that Congress can’t even jump in to try to fix the problems in whatever the USTR negotiates — it can only give a straight “yes” or “no” vote on the entire package. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Congressional Republicans are all for this, even though it means directly giving up Congress’s Constitutional authority to a President that the Republicans appear to hate. Meanwhile, Democrats seem reasonably skeptical of these new trade deals.
So the White House and the USTR have been pushing a charm offensive on Congressional Democrats concerning these trade deals, but the charm offensive also comes with this rather startling statement: if you reveal what we’re telling you, you may go to jail:
As the Obama administration gives House Democrats a hard sell on a major controversial trade pact this week, it will be doing so under severe conditions: Any member of Congress who shares information with the public from a Wednesday briefing could be prosecuted for a crime.
Yes, the USTR has declared that the briefing is entirely classified. Why? Mainly to keep the details secret from the American public. As Rep. Alan Grayson notes:
“It is part of a multi-year campaign of deception and destruction. Why do we classify information? It’s to keep sensitive information out of the hands of foreign governments. In this case, foreign governments already have this information. They’re the people the administration is negotiating with. The only purpose of classifying this information is to keep it from the American people.”
The USTR’s lame response to all of this is that any member of Congerss is allowed to come to its office and see the text of the negotiating documents. But that’s misleading in the extreme. As we’ve discussed before, the USTR tells elected officials that they can’t copy anything, take any notes, or even bring staff experts on trade agreements (or related issues)… even when those staffers have security clearance.
We pointed out this was a problem back in 2012 and it appears to be ongoing. The Huffington Post article above quotes Rep. Rosa DeLauro who appears to be having the same problem:
“Even now, when they are finally beginning to share details of the proposed deal with Members of Congress, they are denying us the ability to consult with our staff or discuss details of the agreement with experts. This flies in the face of how past negotiations have been conducted and does not help the Administration’s credibility. If the TPP would be as good for American jobs as they claim, there should be nothing to hide.”
Rep. Lloyd Doggett also seems amazed that his staffers with security clearance are blocked from getting information about the TPP agreement:
“I tried to find out what level of classification applies,” he said. “Can my top cleared staff read it? If he can hear about ISIS, is there something in here that prevents him from seeing these trade documents?”
It really does make you wonder, once again, just what is the USTR hiding here? There is simply no reason to keep these details secret — except if you know that the American public won’t approve of them.
Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Orrin Hatch are now in a stand-off over a bill that would put secretive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement on the Fast Track to passage through Congress. The White House meanwhile, has intensified their propaganda campaign, going so far as to mislead the public about how trade deals—like the TPP and its counterpart, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—will effect the Internet and users’ rights. They are creating videos, writing several blog posts, and then this week, even sent out a letter from an “online small business owner” to everyone on the White House’s massive email list, to further misinform the public about Fast Track.
In a blog post published this week, the White House flat out uses doublespeak to tout the benefits of the TPP, even going so far as to claim that without these new trade agreements, “there would be no rules protecting American invention, artistic creativity, and research”. That is pure bogus, much like the other lies the White House has been recently saying about its trade policies. Let’s look at the four main myths they have been saying to sell lawmakers and the public on Fast Track for the TPP.
Myth #1: TPP Is Good for the Internet
First, there are the claims that this agreement will create “stronger protections of a free and open Internet”. As we know from previous leaks of the TPP’s Intellectual Property chapter, the complete opposite is true. Most of all, the TPP’s ISP liability provisions could create greater incentives for Internet and content providers to block and filter content, or even monitor their users in the name of copyright enforcement. What they believe are efforts toward protecting the future of the Internet are provisions they’re advocating for in this and other secret agreements on the “free flow of information”. In short, these are policies aimed at subverting data localization laws.
Such an obligation could be a good or a bad thing, depending on what kind of impact it could have on national censorship, or consumer protections for personal data. It’s a complicated issue without an easy solution—which is exactly why this should not be decided through secretive trade negotiations. These “free flow of information” rules have likely been lobbied for by major tech companies, which do not want laws to restrict them on how they deal with users’ data. It is dishonest to say that what these tech companies can do with people’s data is good for all users and the Internet at large.