The ACTA juggernaut continues to roll ahead, despite public indignation about an agreement supposedly about counterfeiting that has turned into a regime for global Internet regulation. The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has already announced that the next round of Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations will take place in January — with the aim of concluding the deal "as soon as possible in 2010."

For the rest of us, with access to only leaks and whispers of what ACTA is about, there are many troubling questions. How can such a radical proposal legally be kept so secret from the millions of Net users and companies whose rights and freedoms stand to be affected? Who decides what becomes the law of the land and by what influence? Where is the public oversight for an agreement that would set the legal rules for the knowledge economy? And what can be done to fix this runaway process?

We wrestle with these questions in an essay on “The Impact of ACTA on the Knowledge Economy”(PDF here) in the Yale Journal of International Law Online. We explain how ACTA got this far, in this form, and propose four mechanisms for USTR transparency reforms, that will give the public a voice in ACTA, if U.S. citizens — and their elected officials — speak loudly and quickly enough.

In brief, the ACTA process has been deliberately more secretive than customary practices in international decision-making bodies to evade the debates about intellectual property (IP) at established multilateral institutions. The Office of the USTR has chosen to negotiate ACTA as a sole executive agreement. Because of a loophole in democratic accountability on sole executive agreements, the Office of the USTR can sign off on an IP Enforcement agenda without any formal congressional involvement at all. But the negotiations do not have to be secret, and the sole executive agreement process does have mechanisms for oversight: they have not been used in ACTA, but can and should be.

The excuse for using sole executive agreements is that ACTA will be fully respectful of U.S. law. But the constraint of coloring within the lines of US law, as one anonymous trade official described it, is a fragile linchpin upon which the weight of public trust and democratic legitimacy is bearing down. In an interview with "Inside U.S. Trade", for their June 19, 2009 edition (paywall link here), the USTR was far less confident:

When pressed whether the U.S. would be open to any negotiated difference from U.S. law in the ACTA, the official said that the goal of the U.S. "is to stick as closely to U.S. law as possible."

How can the USTR negotiate an international agreement that sets new global IP enforcement norms requiring changes to U.S. law and policy as an Executive Agreement, without the knowledge or involvement of Congress? Having failed to get similar proposal adopted via the World Customs Organization, the USTR conceived ACTA as a plurilateral agreement, avoiding the checks and balances of existing multilateral norm-setting bodies. After the announcement of ACTA but prior to commencing formal negotiations, the USTR had prepared a confidentiality agreement that it asked all negotiating countries to accept, which explicitly binds the negotiating partners from public disclosure.

The USTR has exploited this as the justification for classifying all correspondence between negotiating countries in the interest of national security under Executive Order 12958. The Mexican IP Office, which is hosting the next ACTA negotiations, still gave indications that the documents will not be made available to the public. The Internet Chapter was reportedly delivered to negotiating partners in physical, watermarked copies designed to guard against leaks. If the traditional justification for secrecy in trade negotiations is to safeguard details of sensitive US positions in negotiations for diplomatic advantage over other foreign governments, then why is this confidentiality agreement being used to prevent disclosure of ACTA texts to its own citizens?

Upon the expiration of Trade Promotion Authority in 2007, the USTR chose to negotiate ACTA as a sole executive agreement. As a result, ACTA will not require congressional advice and approval, which is integral to the constitution's delicate balance of executive and legislative powers. As staunch a defender of executive privilege as John Yoo once convincingly argued that the limits of executive power to negotiate foreign agreements on intellectual property matters unchecked would deprive the House of its constitutional function.

From early on, civil society has protested ACTA's secrecy, and despite continued public pressure, the USTR’s transparency theater rehearsals of internal review have concluded that showing a selective few Washington insiders the Internet provisions under non-disclosure agreements would satisfy the demands of openness, transparency, and oversight.

Sole executive agreements are not meant to be unaccountable. There are in fact systems in place to stop our executive (and private interests) from having untrammeled power to change the law. We've outlined four ways that Congress, or an Administration sincere about transparency, could put their house in order.

Reform trade advisory committees for more diverse representation

Input to U.S. trade negotiators on IP needs to reflect the views of all stakeholders in the U.S. knowledge economy to counterbalance the disproportionate influence of lobbyists for incumbent industries. This requires reform of the current trade advisory committee system to include civil society and technology industry participation in the tier 3 industry trade advisory committee on intellectual property, ITAC-15, or the creation of new equivalent level advisory committees. Public interest values such as health and consumer protection should play an important role in the new bipartisan trade policy for the knowledge economy.

Strengthen congressional oversight and negotiating objectives

Congressional oversight of foreign trade negotiations, especially agreements affecting areas of non-trade domestic policy, should require the USTR to comply with negotiating objectives that reflect the interests of all stakeholders in the U.S. economy. In addition to the labor and environmental standards articulated in proposed bills like the TRADE Act (H.R. 3012), IP enforcement provisions in agreements must not undermine internationally agreed upon commitments on public health, and flexibilities that protect citizens’ access to knowledge, nor obstruct IP exceptions and limitations appropriate for the digital age. In addition, the Congressional Oversight Group, a statutory supervisory group comprising members of the House and the Senate designed to liaise with the Trade Representative could conduct a thorough review and certify that the new negotiating objectives have been met before a trade agreement could be brought for a congressional vote.

Institutionalize transparency guidelines for trade negotiations

Given the significance of the substantive provisions being debated to Internet users, the ACTA process especially should enable citizens to participate and provide input on the public policy impacts like in other negotiations, where it is customary practice to make documents available. The Office of the USTR incorporating these reforms should heed the Attorney General's instruction to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure to usher in the President's new era of open Government. At a minimum, negotiating texts, when distributed to all negotiating countries should be made public.

Implement the State Department’s Circular 175 procedure.

Finally, the State Department plays an important role in checking the unfettered power of the USTR through its Circular 175 Procedure. These are the regulations that "ensure the proper exercise of the treaty-making power." The State Department Foreign Affairs Manual goes into great detail on the Legal Advisor's criteria for review of international agreements. There are multiple procedures on hand, including formal congressional consultation, when there is a serious question regarding the type of agreement being negotiated. [11 FAM 723.4(b)] It is also made clear that the approval of authorization to negotiate does not constitute advance approval of the text or authorization to enter into the agreement. [11 FAM 724.2] The State Department investigates whether the proposed agreement is "in conflict with other international agreements or U.S. law" [11 FAM 722(2)] and whether it follows the "general international practice as to similar agreements." [11 FAM 723.3(8)] Most significantly for the public's stake in Internet freedom, the Circular 175 declares that:

The interest of the public be taken into account and, where in the opinion of the Secretary of State or his or her designee the circumstances permit, the public be given an opportunity to comment. [11 FAM 725.1(6)]

The Office of the USTR transparency practices must be reformed, and they have failed at reforming themselves. Now that the leaked documents confirm everything we feared, it is time to take a look at how we might hold USTR Ambassador Kirk and Assistant McCoy, the lead ACTA negotiator, to account for their promises:

  • On diverse representation for advice on trade: "I can assure you that I am committed to working very closely with Congress and all interested stakeholders on all of our trade
    agreements and negotiations, including ACTA." (Ronald Kirk Confirmation Hearings, March 9, 2009)
  • On congressional oversight and legislative power: "Q: Will the ACTA rewrite U.S. law? A: No. Only the U.S. Congress can change U.S. law." (ACTA Fact Sheet, August 4, 2008)
  • On transparency practices: President Obama’s trade officials met with several civil society groups and promised a thorough review of the USTR policies regarding transparency. The review is expected to be completed within a few months. The process will include a meeting within a month to discuss initial specific proposals for openness and transparency. Citizens and NGOs are encouraged to think about the specific areas where openness and transparency can be enhanced and how. (USTR Transparency Review KEI Report, March 19, 2009 - as reviewed by Daniel Sepulveda, Assistant USTR for Congressional Affairs)
  • On public participation: The ACTA negotiations "[p]articipants also discussed the importance of transparency including the availability of opportunities for stakeholders and the public in general to provide meaningful input into the negotiating process." (USTR Press Release, November 6, 2009)

Such accountability is available in the U.S. system, but it cannot come from the Office of the USTR alone. If ACTA is going to regulate the global Internet, we believe that should warrant the opportunity for public comment.