EFF is in Ottawa this week for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, to influence the course of discussions over regressive digital policy provisions in this trade agreement that could lead to an increasingly restrictive Internet. But this round is different from the others—the secrecy around the talks is wholly unprecedented. The Canadian trade ministry, who is hosting this round of talks, has likely heightened the confidentiality due to the mass public opposition that is growing against this undemocratic, corporate-driven trade deal.
The trade offices from the 12 countries negotiating this deal no longer pre-announce details about the time and location of these negotiations. They don't bother releasing official statements about the negotiations because they no longer call these “negotiation rounds” but “officials' meetings.” But the seeming informality of these talks is misleading—negotiators are going to these so-called meetings to secretly pull together a deal. As far as we know, they're still discussing whether they could expand the international norm of copyright terms to make it even longer. They are negotiating provisions that could lead to users getting censored and filtered over copyright, with no judicial oversight or consideration for fair use. And trade delegates are deliberating how much of a crime they should make it if users break the DRM on their devices and content, even if users don't know it's illegal and the content they're unlocking isn't even restricted by copyright in the first place.
So for this negotiation, we had to rely on rumors and press reports to know when and where it was even happening. At first, there were confirmed reports that the next TPP meeting would take place at a certain luxury hotel in downtown Vancouver. So civil society began to mobilize, planning events in the area to engage users and members of the public about the dangers of TPP. Then seemingly out of the blue, the entire negotiating round was moved across the country to Ottawa. There's no way to confirm whether this was a deliberate misdirection, but either way it felt very fishy.
Already given this level of secrecy, it goes without saying that there will be no room for members of civil society or the public to engage directly with TPP negotiators. Towards the beginning of TPP talks, we were given 15 minutes to present to stakeholders, in addition to a stakeholder event that allowed us to hang around a big room to meet and pass information to negotiators who walked by. Then it was cut down to ten minutes (after we made some noise that it was going to be cut down to a mere eight minutes). In the following rounds, the stakeholder event was completely removed from the schedules of the official rounds. These didn't provide sufficient time to convey to negotiators about the major threats we saw in this agreement, so those events already seemed to be a superficial nod to public participation. But now, they don't even pretend to give us their ear.
Of course, corporate lobbyists continue to have easy access to the text. Advisors to major content industries can comment and read the text of the agreement on their private computers. But those of us who represent the public interest are left to chase down negotiators down the halls of hotels to let our concerns be heard and known to them.
As we watch TPP crawl its way towards getting finalized, signed, and eventually taint our laws with its one-sided corporate agenda, we need to continue to remember this fact: laws made in secret, with no public oversight or input, are illegitimate. That is not how law is made in democracies. If we're to defend the fundamental democratic rule that law is based on transparent, popular consensus, we need to fight back against an agreement that engages in such a secretive, corporate-captured process.
Council of Canadian: Secretive critical talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership happening in Ottawa