Negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have long been a guarded secret, but critics say the Harper government went the extra mile to keep the latest round of talks out of the public eye.

Talks on the world’s largest (so far) free trade area were slated to begin July 3 in Vancouver. But in a last-minute move, the Department of Foreign Affairs shifted the talks to Ottawa.

Critics of the TPP say it was an attempt to avoid protests. The Council of Canadians, which has been opposed to the TPP and other trade deals Ottawa is negotiating, said the government’s secrecy on the latest round of talks marks “a new low in transparency for an already secretive trade deal.”

Activists note that while they and the media have been kept away, the Harper government has apparently given corporate lobbyists access to inside information about the talks by way of a secret “consulting group.”

“The Canadian government claims that ‘interested stakeholders have an opportunity to provide their views related to Canada’s interests in the TPP,’ but it won’t release even the most basic information to allow for stakeholder access to negotiators as has happened at previous rounds,” said Scott Harris, trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

The federal government denies the change of venue was meant to keep critics at bay. A spokesperson for International Trade Minister Ed Fast told the Globe and Mail it was a cost-cutting move, meant to save $150,000 on hosting expenses. The spokesperson described the talks as a “working-level technical meeting.”

In a column at the Toronto Star, law professor Michael Geist suggests the government insists on secrecy because the TPP deal “stands in stark contrast to current Canadian policy.”

For instance, Geist says, the the Harper government’s new rules on copyright infringement, which create a “notice and notice” system, would be replaced by a much stricter regime that “could lead to terminating subscriber access, content blocking, and even monitoring of online activities.”

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  • 1. It Could Criminalize Small-Scale Downloading

  • 1. It Could Criminalize Small-Scale Downloading

    Canada’s new copyright laws, passed last fall, cap the liability for unauthorized downloading of copyrighted material at $5,000, so long as the downloading is not for commercial purposes. But the TPP could force Canada to institute criminal penalties even for small-time downloaders, according to a number of consumer advocacy groups. Canada’s top negotiator at the talks last fall <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/12/13/trans-pacific-partnership-tpp-canada_n_2294153.html" target="_hplink">refused to say whether Canada would fight for its new copyright laws in the TPP deal</a>.

  • 2. It Could Reduce Or End CanCon Rules

  • 2. It Could Reduce Or End CanCon Rules

    An umbrella group of U.S. media companies has been<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/10/04/trans-pacific-partnership-cancon_n_1940312.html" target="_hplink"> lobbying the U.S. Trade Representative to pressure Canada into repealing Canadian content rules as part of the TPP</a>. That has raised significant concerns among music and film and TV groups that Canada’s cultural industries could be threatened by the TPP.

  • 3. ISPs Could Become Internet Cops

  • 3. ISPs Could Become Internet Cops

    Article 16 of a leaked 2011 draft of the TPP <a href="http://keionline.org/sites/default/files/tpp-10feb2011-us-text-ipr-chapter.pdf" target="_hplink">mandates that countries create “legal incentives” for internet service providers to do their own copyright policing online</a>. That is interpreted by many to mean that ISPs could be held legally accountable if their subscribers download illegally. Consumer groups fear this will mean expanded monitoring of web users’ online habits, and the possibility of three-strikes-and-you’re-out rules that would cut off internet services to subscribers alleged to have engaged in unauthorized downloading.

  • 4. Critics Call The TPP A Corporate Giveaway

  • 4. Critics Call The TPP A Corporate Giveaway

    U.S. House Rep. Alan Grayson, who rose to fame four years ago with his quip that the Republican health care plan amounts to hoping you “die quickly,” was recently allowed to see a draft copy of the TPP. While he’s been banned from divulging any details, the populist Florida Democrat described it in a recent blog post as an agreement that “<a href="http://alangraysonemails.tumblr.com/post/53325968066/i-saw-the-secret-trade-deal" target="_hplink">hands the sovereignty of our country over to corporate interests</a>.” He told HuffPost: "Having seen what I've seen, I would characterize this as a gross abrogation of American sovereignty … And I would further characterize it as a punch in the face to the middle class of America. I think that's fair to say from what I've seen so far. But I'm not allowed to tell you why!" He added on his blog: “There is no national security purpose in keeping this text secret.”

  • 5. It’s Not Secret To Lobbyists

  • 5. It’s Not Secret To Lobbyists

    While politicians like Grayson have to keep quiet in public about what they’ve seen, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/11/30/trans-pacific-partnership_n_2218417.html" target="_hplink">a “consultation group” likely composed of lobbyists has had access to the talks through the Canadian delegation</a>, critics say. OpenMedia reported it received a non-disclosure agreement the group said was mistakenly sent to them, and was apparently meant for industry insiders. “It appears ... the Canadian government got confused about which contacts were industry lobbyists and which are from public interest groups,” OpenMedia stated. The Harper government had previously denied that such a group existed.

  • 6. It Could Mean Foreign Telecom Coming To Canada

  • 6. It Could Mean Foreign Telecom Coming To Canada

    This might not be something the Harper government wants to keep from the public, which is largely unhappy with the state of telecom in Canada, but it could be something it’s trying to keep out of sight of Canada’s telecom companies. The U.S. Trade Representative recently criticized Canada’s protectionist telecom policies, along with policies in a number of other countries negotiating the TPP. That has led some to conclude Canada will come under pressure to relax restrictions on foreign ownership of telecoms. The Tories have previously loosened foreign ownership rules in order to spur competition in the wireless market, so there is a good chance they will be receptive to further liberalization of telecom regulations.

  • 7. Corporations Could Control Your Browsing History

  • 7. Corporations Could Control Your Browsing History

    One of the clauses being debated in the TPP would allow corporations to decide themselves<a href="https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/07/temporary-copies-another-way-tpp-profoundly-disconnected" target="_hplink"> whether internet browsers can make “temporary copies” to your computer’s history folder</a>. Temporary copies are a basic element of how web browsers work (it's what they use to remember your browsing history). Critics say allowing companies to control what is and isn’t copied could harm the ability of search engines to become more sophisticated. It could also have a chilling effect on tech innovation, as it could halt the development of apps that, for example, use a picture of a book cover or a part of a song to identify that book or song.

  • 8. It Could Change Your Grocery Bill

  • 8. It Could Change Your Grocery Bill

    Canada was reportedly <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/sara-zborovski/tradenegotiations_b_1876833.html" target="_hplink">kept out of TPP negotiations at first because of its supply management system</a>, which controls the price of some basic grocery goods like milk and eggs. Canada’s acceptance into the talks has been interpreted by some as meaning the Tories are willing to put the supply management system on the table. (<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/07/31/wheat-board-monopoly-over-date_n_1722357.html" target="_hplink">The Tories have already ended the Wheat Board’s monopoly</a>.) Many Canadians would like to see the end of the “milk and eggs monopoly,” and supporters of change say freeing up the market would result in lower prices. Supporters of the current system say there is no reason to believe prices will go down without supply management, and it will make business less stable for farmers.

  • 9. Copyright Terms Will Likely Be Expanded

  • 9. Copyright Terms Will Likely Be Expanded

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports the TPP would amount to <a href="https://www.eff.org/issues/tpp" target="_hplink">the most significant expansion of copyright terms in two decades</a>. The group says the TPP proposes to extend copyright on works created by individuals to life plus 70 years. (In Canada, it’s currently life plus 50 years). It would also expand copyright owned by corporations to 95 or 120 years after creation, depending on which proposal is accepted. This would ensure that Mickey Mouse (born 1928) would continue to be owned by Disney and would not become part of the public domain. Critics of lengthy copyright terms argue they are bad for economic development because they restrict innovation.

  • 10. You May Have To Do Less Copying And Quoting

  • 10. You May Have To Do Less Copying And Quoting

    The U.S. and Australia apparently want tougher rules for “fair use” exceptions from copyright law. Currently, people are allowed to copy parts of textbooks for educational purposes, or quote copyrighted materials in news articles. But <a href="https://www.eff.org/issues/tpp" target="_hplink">a proposed “three-step test” for fair use</a> could make it considerably harder for people to use parts of copyrighted materials in these ways.

  • 11. Even Politicians Are Fed Up With The Secrecy

    Pictured: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

  • 11. Even Politicians Are Fed Up With The Secrecy

    Some U.S. politicians have been pressuring President Barack Obama to open up the TPP talks to greater public scrutiny. The latest is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, who <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/13/elizabeth-warren-free-trade-letter_n_3431118.html" target="_hplink">sent a letter to the Obama administration earlier this month asking the U.S. Trade Representative to make a copy of the negotiating text available to the public</a>. “<a href="http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/EWFromanLetter.pdf" target="_hplink">Without transparency, the benefit from robust democratic participation — an open marketplace of ideas — is considerably reduced</a>,” she wrote.

The TPP talks involve 12 countries in the Pacific Rim, the largest of which are the U.S. and Japan. The deal would form the world’s largest free trade bloc, encompassing nearly 800 million people.

WikiLeaks released a chapter of the proposed deal last fall, saying the deal would have “far-reaching implications for individual rights and civil liberties.”

Provisions in the draft agreement would create “supranational” courts that could override member nations’ judicial systems, and the courts would “have no human rights safeguards,” WikiLeaks said.

(Similar tribunals have been created by previous trade deals. The North American Free Trade Agreement has had one in place for two decades, but it’s only recently that public attention has turned to the potential implications of these judicial bodies.)

Stephen Cornish, the head of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders Canada, warned in a HuffPost column earlier this year that extensions to drug patents likely to be included in the deal would reduce access to generic drugs, particularly harming people in developing countries.

“Affordable generic drugs save millions of lives. Generic HIV medicines reduced the price of treatment from over $10,000 per person per year in 2001, to just $120 today,” he wrote.

The talks in Ottawa — which according to the Globe and Mail may be taking place at the Delta Ottawa City Centre Hotel — are slated to run through July 12.

Both the U.S. and Japan have said they would like to see a deal hammered out before the end of the year.

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