The Trans-Pacific Partnership Will "Significantly" Restrict Online Freedoms

Today, 25 tech companies asked Sen. Ron Wyden to oppose the fast track of the TPP.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

Image: Flickr/Stop Fast Track

In October, Senate Finance Committee chairmen Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Max Baucus called on Congress to fast-track legislation that would give President Obama's trade representative, Michael Froman, power to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a broad-reaching, secretive trade agreement that, among other things, would create new internet regulations that concern open internet activists.

Today, 25 tech companies, including Reddit, Automattic (WordPress.com), Imgur, and Boing Boing, sent an open letter to Sen. Ron Wyden urging him to oppose any form of a TPP fast track.

After thanking Sen. Wyden for his staunch defense of "users and online rights," and congratulating him on his appointment as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the coalition wrote, "These highly secretive, supranational agreements are reported to include provisions that vastly expand on any reasonable definition of 'trade,' including provisions that impact patents, copyright, and privacy in ways that constrain legitimate online activity and innovation." 

Of particular concern to tech companies are Froman's copyright enforcement proposals. "Dozens of digital rights organizations and tens of thousands of individuals have raised alarm over provisions that would bind treaty signatories to inflexible digital regulations that undermine free speech," they wrote. "Based on the fate of recent similar measures, it is virtually certain that such proposals would face serious scrutiny if proposed at the domestic level or via a more transparent process."

"Anticipated elements such as harsher criminal penalties for minor, non-commercial copyright infringements, a 'take-down and ask questions later' approach to pages and content alleged to breach copyright, and the possibility of Internet providers having to disclose personal information to authorities without safeguards for privacy will chill innovation and significantly restrict users' freedoms online," they added.

As noted in Motherboard's past TPP coverage, Congress has the constitutional power to debate trade agreements. In the fast tracked TPP negotiations, Congress would be shut out, as would stakeholders and the individuals who actually helped build the internet's infrastructure. Diplomats, politicians, and select corporations would instead secretly settle on the language and regulations contained in the trade agreement. 

"You know that legislation is really, really bad when it's opposed by major tech companies as well as nearly every labor, environmental, and Internet freedom group in the country."

Aside from constitutional concerns, leaked drafts of the bill suggest TPP would also prohibit the temporary storage of works in electronic form. Practically speaking, this would mean that YouTube videos, for example, wouldn't play properly, as temporary downloads of video files onto computers allows for faster and smoother viewing. Indeed, temporary files—from cached web pages to files stored on user browsers—are vital to viewing nearly any type of internet content. If enacted, it would be hard to predict exactly what type of legal effect TPP would have on internet users. 

Other TPP provisions would extend copyright terms from the life of the author plus 50 to 70 years; implement a three-strikes policies requiring ISPs to terminate user internet access without conviction of copyright infringement; and force ISPs to filter any content that could be seen as violating copyright. So much for due process. 

Laura Harrison from GSM Nation, one of the letter's signatories, believes that the most troubling aspects of TPP are its potentially negative effects on freedom of speech, open internet usage, and technological innovation. "The fast-tracking of this legislation, and the fast-tracking of any legislation in general, limits the ability of citizens and their representatives to debate and revise laws prior to passing them," she said. "This is a fundamental step in the democratic process, and its removal cripples the system of checks and balances that we as a country have worked to establish."

Other effects might be harder to initially pinpoint. But Harrison said that it would most certainly empower large corporations to legally pursue innovators and smaller players in the space under the guise of copyright protection.

"Since no allowances are made for fair use, usage by libraries or persons with disabilities, etc., freedoms that have encouraged the technological growth that we celebrate in the US will be removed," she added. "It could lead to an ice age in innovation as entrepreneurs and citizens are forced to defend themselves against interfering corporations. It would create a 'police state' environment instead of protecting and encouraging the open exchange of information."

Fight for the Future's Evan Greer finds the letter particularly exciting because it demonstrates just how broad opposition to the fast track and the TPP really is. "You know that legislation is really, really bad when it's opposed by major tech companies as well as nearly every labor, environmental, and Internet freedom group in the country," said Greer, adding that given the scope of TPP resistance, there's "no way that those in power can continue to claim that secrecy and exclusivity are good ways to make decisions that affect all of us."

The signatories therefore advocate a "successful innovation policy framework" that supports new ideas, products, and markets. For TPP to work, they believe that the process has to be transparent and participatory, not negotiated behind closed doors. If that fails to happen, they believe—and quite rightly—that a narrow range of large corporate interests will drive trade policy, especially when it comes to international copyright regulations.

Wyden, as they note, is uniquely placed to slow down and open up TPP negotiations. Which, after all, is the entire point of the democratic process. Anything less than a deliberative process would empower the few over the billions of people who use the internet across the globe.