President Obama has nominated former SOPA lobbyist Robert Holleyman to join the team of U.S. negotiators leading the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks. If confirmed by the Senate, the former chief executive officer of the Business Software Alliance (BSA) would serve as a Deputy to the U.S. Trade Representative. Coincidentally, the current head of the BSA is former White House IP Czar Victoria Espinel.
Holleyman is an interesting choice for the Obama administration, given the current standstill in TPP negotiations. Reports from the TPP ministerial meeting last weekend said that nothing substantive came out of those talks and that an end date for this sprawling deal is growing increasingly uncertain. One of the many topics of contention is the copyright enforcement sections. On these, the U.S. refuses to agree to provisions that would allow signatory countries flexibility in their copyright regimes.
As a result, countries like Chile and Canada are standing firm against U.S. proposals—a stance confirmed by the “Intellectual Property” chapter published by Wikileaks in November. These proposals include provisions that would place greater liabilities on Internet Service Providers, create new tools of censorship, and new restrictions on how users can access and interact with digital content. Instead of allowing other countries to choose their own approaches to copyright, Obama's choice to appoint a prominent supporter of the spectacularly failed SOPA bill indicates the White House's unwillingness to let up on its extreme stance on copyright enforcement.
The evidence of corporate influence on trade talks doesn't stop there. Recent reports revealed that prominent U.S. trade officials had received millions of dollars in bonuses before they left their corporate jobs to take up their position at the Obama administration. Soon after these revelations, the U.S. Trade Rep Michael Froman—who received $4 million in bonuses from banking giant CitiGroup—introduced plans to create a new Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee. If this was an attempt to address our criticism of the overwhelming influence of private interests in setting the U.S. trade agenda, it was—at best—a half-hearted one. As we've pointed out, fundamental issues underlie this trade advisory system, primarily that members would be gagged from discussing or publicly advocating on the provisions they have seen as a result of serving on this committee. This Washington Post graphic clearly illustrates the current dominating influence of corporate industries in these trade advisory committees.
TPP Talks at a Standstill
The pattern of most other TPP countries resisting relatively extreme U.S. proposals is becoming more and more common. According to some sources, Japan and the U.S. are so far from agreement on certain agricultural issues that the U.S. Trade Rep suggested to the other countries that they should exclude Japan from the talks entirely. And senior legislators from seven TPP countries demanded more transparency in negotiations, releasing a statement demanding that the text of the agreement be released before it is signed. Even the Malaysian trade minister said publicly that he would not sign the agreement as long as the text remained secret.
Meanwhile, Obama and the U.S. Trade Rep faces mounting opposition on the domestic front. Lack of concrete assurance from the trade official that he would be steadfast in his push for environmental protections in TPP has apparently eroded the trust of some House Democrats and powerful liberal supporters. Without solid support from his own political base in the House, it will be almost impossible for Obama to get Fast Track authority. Without Fast Track, it's not clear the administration can pass the TPP at all.
Beyond the legislature, the White House lacks popular support for its trade agenda. A recent poll showed that a majority of U.S. voters oppose Fast Track and the TPP. The same survey showed that there are marginally more Republicans who oppose Obama's whole trade agenda, despite the fact that there are many more prominent Republicans in Congress who support handing Fast Track authority to Obama.
TPP's completion becomes ever more tenuous as resistance to its corporate-driven policies continue to dissolve political support for the deal. Yet Obama's nomination of Holleyman suggests that his administration has no intention of removing the draconian copyright policies out of TPP no matter how unpopular or contentious they may be. It also reflects the greater issue at hand—the White House is choosing to heed the demands of Hollywood and other corporate giants and ignore the interests of users.
Those of us in the U.S. need to get our Congress members to oppose Fast Track authority and exercise their constitutional authority to ensure that these trade deals respect our digital rights. It would be an assault on our democratic governance to allow our lawmakers to hand over their own mandate to the White House.