Senator Ron Wyden yesterday introduced a bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate demanding access to draft texts of international trade agreements under negotiation by the Office of the United States Trade Representative such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) that carry provisions that could severely choke off users' rights on the Internet around the world. This is a great positive step in the right direction.
The proposed bill, titled the "Congressional Oversight Over Trade Negotiations Act", calls for all Members of Congress, together with all of their staff with proper security clearance, to be given access to "documents, including classified materials, relating to negotiations for a trade agreement to which the United States may be a party and policies advanced by the Trade Representative in such negotiations."
Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the sole power to regulate foreign commerce in order to ensure that such laws and policies take into consideration all the interests of the people rather than those of the select few. Congress has delegated certain powers to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), but remains subject to Congressional oversight. The USTR is required to consult wth the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, and is supposed to regularly consult with the House and Senate Leadership Offices. In addition, under amendments to the Trade Act enacted by Congress in 2002, the USTR is required to consult with members of the Congressional Oversight Group.
Senator Wyden is a member of the Senate Finance Committee (which has jurisdiction over "reciprocal trade agreements; tariff and import quotas, and related matters thereto") and is Chair of its subcommittee on International Trade, Customs and Global Competitiveness. And yet, as he explains, neither he nor his staff which have obtained proper security clearance, have been able to get access to material related to the negotiations of the TPP from the USTR. This is something that he also raised with the U.S. Trade Ambassador at a Senate hearing on 7 March. The USTR has apparently read the 2002 legislation as narrowing the requirement for the USTR to consult with Members of Congress, contrary to what Senator Wyden and others had intended at the time it was enacted. Meanwhile, the USTR is continuing to consult on TPP negotiating texts with representatives of large entertainment companies, and the pharmaceutical industry on the private sector Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Intellectual Property. Senator Wyden introduced yesterday's bill to rectify this situation.
In his remarks introducing yesterday's bill, Senator Wyden states:
Put simply, this legislation would ensure that the representatives elected by the American people are afforded the same level of influence over our nation’s policies as the paid representatives of PhRMA, Halliburton and the Motion Picture Association.
Senator Wyden has nailed it. The USTR has continued to exclude our Congressional representatives, civil society and public interest groups from learning about the policy issues that are being discussed in these negotiations, while welcoming private sector industry groups' inputs on negotiation texts with open arms.
The leaked U.S. TPP Intellectual Property chapter has provisions that will directly impact the future of the open Internet. This is a vital issue that all of us should have a say in, not just representatives from a few selective parts of the economy. Sound and balanced policy-making requires transparency and meaningful input from all affected Internet stakeholders.
Through our action alert, concerned citizens have sent over 20,000 emails to our Congressional representatives since February, calling on Congress to demand transparency in these negotiations. That demonstrates that there is very substantial interest from constitutents in understanding how what the USTR is negotiating will affect our digital rights and the open Internet. However, this battle is not close to being over.
Help us keep the pressure on Congress and let them know we'd like to see them defend Internet freedom against the powerful trans-national industries that are currently unilaterally shaping these secret international trade agreements.
Click here to take action. Tell Congress that you refuse any more backroom deals to regulate the Internet.