We have joined more than a hundred organizations and tens of thousands of individuals across the US to oppose secret, undemocratic trade agreements that affect users' rights. Together, we defeated a bill that would have put agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the fast track to approval without any proper Congressional oversight. Now the White House, the United States Trade Representative (USTR), and other policymakers that are beholden to corporate interests are putting massive pressure on Congress to pass something like it again. They just face one problem: the Congress member with the mandate to introduce a new trade authority bill is a strong defender of digital rights and a vocal opponent to the secrecy that shrouds trade agreement. That is Senator Ron Wyden.
For years, Sen. Wyden has demanded more transparency in our trade negotiations. He has recognized that the US should not bind itself to deals whose agenda is dominated by big corporate interests at the expensive of Internet users' rights. He is now in the unique position to fix this broken, secretive process. But while the USTR works towards sealing the deal on the TPP, the Senator is under ever more pressure to lead the passage of a bill that would expedite trade agreements to approval.
They want him to introduce something like Fast Track (also known as Trade Promotion Authority). Under such a law, Congress hands to the president its own constitutional authority to oversee, debate, and set the agenda for US trade policy. When it was in place in the past, it created special rules that empowered the White House to negotiate and sign trade agreements without Congressional oversight. If enacted now, draconian Internet and copyright provisions, buried in omnibus treaties, could get passed with almost no oversight.
So how does Sen. Wyden fit into this? As the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee (which includes the subcommittee on international trade), he is in charge of overseeing congressional trade policies. That's why the White House and the USTR need him to pass a bill that would legitimize their back-room trade negotiations. Thankfully, Sen. Wyden has been an outspoken critic of the secrecy around these agreements. That's why over 25 leading tech companies sent him a public letter calling him to oppose Fast Track. In 2012, he sent a letter to the US Trade Rep calling them to release detailed information about provisions in the TPP that would impact Internet freedoms. He also introduced a bill to the floor in May 2012, demanding the USTR give Congress members full access to the TPP text—the same access afforded to representatives of corporations. In his statement at the hearing introducing this legislation, he said:
It may be the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) current job to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of the United States, but Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress—not the USTR or any other member of the Executive Branch—the responsibility of regulating foreign commerce. It was our Founding Fathers’ intention to ensure that the laws and policies that govern the American people take into account the interests of all the American people, not just a privileged few.
And yet, Mr. President, the majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations—like Halliburton, Chevron, PHRMA, Comcast, and the Motion Picture Association of America—are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement. As the Office of the USTR will tell you, the President gives it broad power to keep information about the trade policies it advances and negotiates, secret. Let me tell you, the USTR is making full use of this authority.
In the remainder of his statement, he describes how his staff was denied access to the negotiation text even after they had received proper security clearance. In introducing this legislation that summer in 2012, he wanted to make sure that Members of Congress and their staff could simply be afforded the same level of access to the negotiating texts of the TPP as corporate representatives.
So now, as a long time defender of digital rights in Congress, we call on Sen. Wyden to continue defending users' rights against big private interests, and ensure that users' interests are upheld, not trampled on. In our letter to the Senator, we outline some crucial fixes to the current negotiation process. If he is going to introduce a new version of trade authority, we want to make sure it has essential democratic procedures built into it to ensure that users' rights take a front seat in the trade policy debate.