One of the world’s most important trade deals ever is being negotiated between 11 Pacific Rim countries, including Canada. But you might not know it, from all the attention it’s been getting.
The most recent round of talks on this trade deal took place in Vancouver last week, and was met with some minor protests. But, again, you might not know it, from all the attention it’s been getting.
Canada lobbied for years to be admitted to the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, which now include Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam. Canada was finally formally admitted last October.
So why is the Harper government now doing everything it can to keep the Trans-Pacific Partnerships details a secret? After all, this is the government that has prided itself on aggressively expanding Canada’s free trade agreements with the world (and whose failure thus far to reach a free trade deal with the EU, after multiple missed deadlines, has been a source of embarrassment for the Tories).
According to opponents of the TPP, Harper is keeping it quiet because he fears it will be controversial among Canadians. Everything from the rules surrounding Internet downloads, to how our groceries are produced, to when you can copy textbooks legally, will be affected.
Those suspicions were heightened by the fact that Trade Minister Ed Fast kept secret the results of a public consultation on the TPP, saying only that the talks had “broad support.”
But tech law expert Michael Geist said documents he obtained under the Access to Information Act showed “the government was overwhelmed with negative comments urging officials to resist entry into the TPP,” particularly with respect to copyright law.
No official deadline has been set for the deal to be signed, but many observers expect a finalized deal of some sort this fall.
While details of the deal so far have been shrouded in secrecy, there have been enough leaks to put together something of a picture of this deal.
Here are 11 things Prime Minister Stephen Harper almost certainly would rather you not know about the Trans-Pacific Partnership:
(Note: You’re going to see the word “could” all over these factoids because the deal hasn’t been finalized and, as mentioned previously, it’s all shrouded in official secrecy.)
(Text version below slideshow)
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 refused to say whether Canada would fight for its new copyright laws in the TPP deal.
2. It Could Reduce Or End CanCon Rules
An umbrella group of U.S. media companies has been lobbying the U.S. Trade Representative to pressure Canada into repealing Canadian content rules as part of the TPP.
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
Article 16 of a leaked 2011 draft of the TPP mandates that countries create “legal incentives” for internet service providers to do their own copyright policing online. 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
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 “hands the sovereignty of our country over to corporate interests.”
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
While politicians like Grayson have to keep quiet in public about what they’ve seen, a “consultation group” likely composed of lobbyists has had access to the talks through the Canadian delegation, 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
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
One of the clauses being debated in the TPP would allow corporations to decide themselves whether internet browsers can make “temporary copies” to your computer’s history folder.
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
Canada was reportedly kept out of TPP negotiations at first because of its supply management system, 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. (The Tories have already ended the Wheat Board’s monopoly.)
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
The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports the TPP would amount to the most significant expansion of copyright terms in two decades.
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
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 proposed “three-step test” for fair use 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
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 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.