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    The Next Free Trade Agreement Aims to Regulate the Internet

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    DJ Pangburn

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    The Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, is up for a vote in the European Parliament this Wednesday, May 22. TAFTA is a free trade area proposal between the European Union and the United States. It aims to open up trade between the US's NAFTA bloc and the EU bloc (EFTA), boosting overall trade by up to 50 percent.

    US and EU leaders claim that the trade agreement is vital to lift their respective economic zones out of recession. However, like ACTA, SOPA and PIPA before it, the negotiations, which were held in secret, resulted in more copyright and patent trade regulation—without public stakeholder input. In other words, US and EU citizens can neither see the text of nor vote on TAFTA. Many of the trade agreement's provisions apparently derive from ACTA, Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which was voted down last year in the EUP.

    The operating principle of international copyright law might as well be this: never put all of your eggs in one basket. Dispersion is the key—multiple fronts of attack, one after another. Activists and critics will see the maneuvers; but, as with any war of attrition, the opposition's momentum dissipates. And the majority of the world's population are fully ignorant of international affairs, dazzled as they are by technological titillation, reality TV, political theater, etc.

    In that ignorance lies the ability to pass trade agreements like TAFTA.

    Indeed, there doesn't seem to be the oppositional inertia coming out of activist corners against TAFTA as there was with ACTA. Precious little online chatter is playing out on the subject, except on Twitter, where there is a vocal effort to raise awareness about the trade agreement's side effects.

    Meanwhile, Le Quadrature du Net rallied 47 signatories for its Civil Society Declaration, “to exclude from the upcoming Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement any provisions related to patents, copyright, trademarks, data protection, geographical indications, or other forms of so-called 'intellectual property.'”

    The Civil Society Declaration's signatories include European and international organizations such as EFF, Public Knowledge, Big Brother Watch, PLUS Coalition, Bits of Freedom, European Digital Rights, and others.

    La Quadrature du Net's spokesperson, Jérémie Zimmermann, had this to say of TAFTA:

    “The European Parliament is not ready to draw lessons from the massive citizen mobilization against ACTA last year. It has decided to stick to 'business as usual' by calling once again for a 'strong protection' of copyright and patent, whereas the US and the EU already suffer from the most maximalist regimes in this field. After the ACTA fight, the negotiators of this new trade agreement –and in particular EU Trade commissioner Karel de Gucht – may once again attempt to use undemocratic negotiations to impose online repression in the name of copyright enforcement. Citizens must remain vigilant to influence the negotiations at the national level, and be watchful of EU institutions so as to avoid the worst.”

    The opposition, however, extends beyond civil liberties and internet freedom groups.

    Here in the US, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) has been a vocal critic of the current round of secret TAFTA talks. Grayson sees in TAFTA an effort to deregulate the food industry, enriching corporations and putting people's health and safety at risk.

    “The TTIP features 'investor-state' dispute resolution, which invites huge corporations to file lawsuits to prevent government actions that they just don't like, such as health and safety regulations,” wrote Rep. Grayson in a recent Huffington Post article. “Similar trade agreements have allowed the World Trade Organization to strike down country-of-origin meat labels , dolphin-safe tuna labels and limits on candy-flavored cigarettes marketed to kids.”

    Another concern is that TAFTA will, instead of fostering free trade, create barriers of entry with its copyright and patent provisions. That is, the trade agreement would favor powerful corporations, reducing competition and stifling innovation in the process.

    As noted in the Civil Society Declaration, “Past trade agreements negotiated by the US and EU have significantly increased the privileges of multinational corporations at the expense of society in general.” The declaration also warns that TAFTA's provisions have the potential to, “among many other concerns, limit free speech, constrain access to educational materials such as textbooks and academic journals, and, in the case of medicines, raise healthcare costs and contribute to preventable suffering and death.”

    Peter Sunde , a candidate for a seat in European Parliament and co-founder of The Pirate Bay, is worried about what TAFTA would and could do, but isn't so sure TAFTA will pass.

    “I am not sure that the EUP will be stupid enough to pass this,” Sunde told Motherboard. “However, there's been too little noise about TAFTA, mainly because people in general think that telling the politicians what they think should be enough (as with ACTA, SOPA, PIPA) to not simply re-name the legislation and try to pass it again. But it might be exactly what's going on.”

    Sunde wagers that there is a 50/50 chance that TAFTA will pass, but noted that this doesn't mean it will become law in EU. It would, in his words, likely get tied up in “huge bureaucracy” before implementation.

    “First, there is a vote for ratification by the commission; which, with a recommendation, goes over it, and then there can be hearings and so on,” said Sunde. “Next, every country needs to ratify it with the EU as well. At this stage, citizens can try to stop it before it gets ratified. Every step towards its total passage is bad, though, and it should be stopped.”

    Parts of TAFTA's language made it out onto the internet in the form of leaks, but civil society still hasn't seen the full text of TAFTA. And this is a huge problem with with trade agreements like TAFTA and TPP—vested corporate interests working in concert with diplomats to regulate trade, and doing it all in secrecy.

    “It's an ongoing issue that we don't have full transparency with these agreements,” said Sunde. “If the agreements can't see the light of day before they're voted on, they should not be allowed to vote on at all.”

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