It’s Not What They’re Seeking, It’s What They’re Hiding

As I said before in another context, what’s wrong with what’s been going on at the National Security Agency (NSA) “is not the spying, it’s the lying.”

Spy agencies are supposed to spy, but within the rules laid out for them by the US Congress. They are not allowed to lie to Congress or to Congress’ mandated overseers like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Nor, it should be said, are the NSA, The White House or leaders of the Congress allowed to lie to the American people about what they’ve learned about law-breaking activities in the name of national security.

When lies like this become routine, the bond of trust between citizen and government breaks down and democracy dies with it.

In November, Wikileaks published an August summary of negotiations over the Intellectual Property chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement which is meant to strengthen economic relations among twelve signatory nations: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, and Brunei.

Several commentators have noted, the Wikileaks document may not be current; there have been a couple of secret negotiating sessions since August. But the release is timely, as the last round of talks among the 12 nations’ Chief Negotiators was held at the end of November in Salt Lake City.

If the document is still relevant it indicates that what the US Trade Representative is seeking is bad enough, but worse by far is that the Obama Administration is hiding all the potentially consequential details.

Make no mistake, what’s being proposed could directly affect you if you suffer from cancer, if you’re going to have surgery using a new medical device, if you read a book or use the internet.

Think you might fit into one of those categories? Think you ought to be included in at least the theoretical discussion of new global rules for who can claim patent protection, for what, for how long? Or are you happy to leave that to the fine folks at the US Trade Rep’s office or the Oval Office or lawyers for a few hundred directly-interested corporations?

Even if you’re appalled to be excluded from the whole discussion, don’t take it personally. You and I are not the only ones being cut out until the dips have their fait accompli. According to the International Business Times,

“Only 700 representatives of various corporations have access to the text. The governments of the countries involved in the negotiations are not able to view the text while it is being discussed by the corporations, meaning that the public will have little to no input on what will be included in the final version.”

And The Guardian notes,

“Even members of the US Congress were only allowed to view selected portions of the documents under supervision.

“‘We’re really worried about a process which is so difficult for those who take an interest in these agreements to deal with,’ says Peter Bradwell, policy director of the London-based Open Rights Group.

“‘Lots of people in civil society have stressed that being more transparent, and talking about the text on the table, is crucial to give treaties like this any legitimacy. We shouldn’t have to rely on leaks to start a debate about what’s in then.’”

What’s not to like about the Intellectual Property rules the USTR (US Trade Representative) has put on the table? International Business Times cites five major issues.

The first is the strengthening of Big Pharma property rights to their proprietary medicines. What this generality could mean specifically is spelled out by Politico.

“Pharmaceutical patents and copyright issues addressed through the intellectual property rights chapter have proven especially controversial, as the United States seeks strong protections for its drug-makers, and Asian countries fight for cheaper medicines.”

What protections to the pharmaceutical giants want?

Politico says they want to eliminate, or sharply reduce countries’ rights to breach patent rights “in the interest of public health,” by restricting those exceptions to epidemics and disallowing diseases such as cancer.

“The United States is also pushing to ease drug-makers’ ability to obtain patents overseas and in developing countries and to extend the duration of those patents beyond 20 years.”

As Public Citizen put it in their response to the Wikileaks document, “These proposals would strengthen, lengthen and broaden pharmaceutical monopolies on cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS drugs, among others, in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Second, the manufacturers of medical devices want the right to patent-protect their use by surgeons and technicians in the operating room. IBT sums up the real-world meaning of this: “In layman’s terms, the United States’ TPP proposal would make it so that the patent protections exception would apply only to ‘surgical methods you can perform with your bare hands,’” quoting Burcu Kilic, legal counsel to Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program.

Third, what’s sauce for Big Pharma is also to be served up for Big Ink, the publishers or words and music. IBT reports, “The preliminary version of the TPP would also rewrite the guidelines on international copyright law by lengthening the terms that copyright protections. [Today] copyright term protections are capped at the life of the author of a work plus 50 years. But under the TPP, longer copyright protections could extend copyright term protections to Life + 70 years for works by individuals, and either 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation for corporate owned works (such as Mickey Mouse).”

The net-net here, says IBT will “bolster the profits of corporations and harm consumers by keeping works out of the public domain for far longer than under current law.”

Points 4 and 5 would, several critics claim, gut many of the freedoms enjoyed by today’s citizens of the internet. International Business Times quotes from “the relevant section of the TPP’s intellectual property chapter leaked Wednesday: ‘Each Party shall provide that authors, performers, and producers of phonograms have the right to authorize or prohibit all reproductions of their works, performances, and phonograms, in any manner or form, permanent or temporary (including temporary storage in electronic form).’”

Then IBT cites the EFF response: “‘the provision ‘reveals a profound disconnect with the reality of the modern computer,’ which relies on temporary copies to perform routine operations.

“‘Does that mean—under the US proposed language—that anyone who ever views content on their device could potentially be found liable of infringement?’ the EFF wrote. ‘For other countries signing on to the TPP, the answer would be most likely yes.’”

Finally, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership rules would dump the job of enforcing these radical new limitations on Internet freedom on whom? Again, IBT quotes the Electronic Freedom Foundation: “The TPP wants service providers to undertake the financial and administrative burdens of becoming copyright cops, serving a copyright maximalist agenda while disregarding the consequences for Internet freedom and innovation.”

With such big changes with such big consequences in play, why is such a small, unelected, unrepresentative group of corporate lawyers and carefully anonymous government bureaucrats allowed to debate and promulgate in such secrecy.

It sounds like the answers are (1) they have so much to hide, and (2) they know many if not most people, in the US, in the other 11 TPP countries, in the world, would not agree to their diktats.

By the way, if you think these arguments are harmless abstractions, check this list from The Guardian’s George Monbiot of how “investor-state rules” in similar international trade agreements have enabled private companies to bully elected governments.

“The Australian government, after massive debates in and out of parliament, decided that cigarettes should be sold in plain packets, marked only with shocking health warnings. The decision was validated by the Australian Supreme Court. But, using a trade agreement Australia struck with Hong Kong, the tobacco company Philip Morris has asked an offshore tribunal to award it a vast sum in compensation for the loss of what it calls its intellectual property.

“During its financial crisis, and in response to public anger over rocketing charges, Argentina imposed a freeze on people’s energy and water bills (does this sound familiar?). It was sued by the international utility companies [and] for this and other such crimes, it has been forced to pay out over a billion dollars in compensation.

“In El Salvador, local communities managed to persuade the government to refuse permission for a vast gold mine which threatened to contaminate their water supplies. A victory for democracy? Not for long, perhaps. The Canadian company which sought to dig the mine is now suing El Salvador for $315m – for the loss of its anticipated future profits.

“In Canada, the courts revoked two patents owned by the American drugs firm Eli Lilly, on the grounds that the company had not produced enough evidence that they had the beneficial effects it claimed. Eli Lilly is now suing the Canadian government for $500m, and demanding that Canada’s patent laws are changed.”

The last round of TPP negotiations finished on November 24. Let’s see if anyone outside the secret circle can find out was discussed, much less actually join in the discussion.

Wasn’t one of the first things Barack Obama promised, long before he said anything about being able to keep your health insurance coverage, was transparency.

Well, you gotta say that promise has been easy to see through.

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