Knowledge is power, they say.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a secretive international trade agreement, stands to have intensely damaging effects on nearly every front, from internet freedom to copyright law. But if you raise these concerns with negotiators, who have privileged access to the text of the agreement, they'll just tell you that they have access to the latest draft, and you don't.
Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are a closed-door affair involving government officials and a select group of corporate stakeholders. Almost everything we know about the text of the TPP—that it would allow corporations to sue governments for instituting policies that hurt their bottom line, for example—comes from documents leaked to the internet by WikiLeaks. Until March of this year, the last TPP draft critics could refer to was from 2014.
Every TPP chapter leaked reveals some new policy horrorshow. But in this game of cat and mouse between governments, corporations, and citizens, those who are in the know always have the upper hand. The TPP's secrecy is a classic case of asymmetry in knowledge, and thus, power. Leaks, for now, are the only way to even the playing field.
"We cannot trust that what is in there is in the public interest"
Critics have claimed that the TPP's "free flow of information" clauses—ostensibly meant to prevent governments from forcing internet companies to censor content—would also prevent sovereign countries from hosting data locally and instituting their own data privacy laws. In response, Senator Ron Wyden argued in April that there are, in fact, protections against just this in the TPP. The catch is that they supposedly lie in a chapter of the agreement that hasn't seen the light of day, outside of secretive negotiations.
"That's exactly why they're making it secret—Obama's response to critics was, word for word, 'They don't know what they're talking about,'" Maira Sutton, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's global policy analyst, told me. "And yes, we don't know exactly what we're talking about, because it's secret. For them to say that these rules are legitimate as they're being negotiated in secret, with disclosures to corporate advisors who can see and comment on the text, we cannot trust that what is in there is in the public interest."
The need for more leaks is especially urgent because of a recently proposed bill that would "fast-track" the agreement's approval by Congress. If passed, the bill would reduce Congress's say in approving the TPP to a simple "yes-no" vote. The process of adopting the TPP would be much quicker, without amendments or procedural delays.
Leaking, however, remains a contentious topic, with pundits and government officials gleefully accusing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden of everything from sparking ISIS' rise to prominence to giving the Chinese government the knowledge it needed to create a powerful hacking tool, often without any evidence at all.
Similarly, WikiLeaks faced criticism after creating a searchable archive of Sony executives' email inboxes. The emails were leaked last year by hackers known as the Guardians of Peace. While WikiLeaks insisted the emails provided valuable insight into the close ties between Sony and the US government, the Motion Pictures Association of America called the move a "despicable act."
Yet, the act of leaking TPP drafts hasn't faced as much backlash, presumably because every newly leaked draft contains stipulations that seem to actively work for corporate interests and against citizens. That's all the more reason for whomever is leaking the drafts—WikiLeaks has done an excellent job thus far of staying exceedingly mum on that point—to leak more of them.
That all we can do is speculate and play connect-the-dots is exactly the problem
The black box of TPP negotiations is especially concerning because it may already be affecting policy decisions in negotiating states. Canada extended its copyright protections for audio recordings from 50 to 70 years in April—a move that is widely speculated to have been prompted by pressure from the US in the lead-up to TPP negotiations.
"The narrative here is that the US is pretty much arm-twisting the negotiators of other countries into accepting various provisions, including free-flow of information and copyright provisions," Sutton said. The office of the Canadian ambassador to the US doesn't see it that way, however.
"With respect to the TPP, the [intellectual property] chapter is still under negotiation and Canada continues to advance its interests at the negotiating table," Alexandra Vachon White, deputy spokesperson for the Embassy of Canada, wrote me in an email. "Canada will continue to work with our TPP partners to achieve outcomes consistent with the common goal of achieving an ambitious and balanced 21st Century agreement that will enhance trade and investment, and promote innovation, economic growth and development."
Exactly who is pulling these international levers of power, and how, is unclear—and that all we can do is speculate and play connect-the-dots is exactly the problem. Without leaks, no truly relevant public discourse can exist around the agreement, if only because negotiators have the ironclad argument of public ignorance to fall back on, whether or not their claims are true; we simply have no way of knowing.
When the powerful actors engaged in the negotiations refuse to make the process auditable by the public, leaks are our only means of peeking behind the veil of secrecy. So, whoever you are: keep leaking TPP documents. Because right now, we don't have any other options.