Online regulation keeps too many secrets from public

Through the summer and into the fall, you’ve probably heard a few murmurs about something called the Trans Pacific Part­nership (TPP). As the name implies, it’s a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations, in­cluding Japan, Singapore, Mexico, Canada, Ma­laysia and the United States.

There’s certainly a lot being said positive­ly and negatively about the agreement. The White House has launched an entire website dedicated to convince you of how good it is, and there’s a lot being said by organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) about how bad it is, with numerous press releases in the last couple years about how the agreement will hurt our “Internet Freedoms.”

Here’s the thing. I’d love to tell you wheth­er I like or dislike the TPP as a whole, and whether the trade benefits it offers are better or worse than its complications.

The only problem is that it’s not yet a public document. Take a minute and ponder the fol­lowing: The United States Office of the Trade Representative has an entire website (www.ustr.gov/tpp) dedicated to telling us why the TPP is good for us, but it also cannot (or will not) share all the details of this potentially su­per-important trade agreement.

Sure, there’s a lot of fancy pictures and in­teresting graphics all about the numerous, hip things the TPP will do, from supporting small businesses to cutting taxes on U.S. made goods, but it has that eery feeling of being ex­tremely polished while remaining extremely vague.

When you visit the website, you can peruse the thousands of tax benefits the TPP has, but only the OTP can decide what to share with us as American citizens. The entire remainder of the document is however still secretive, de­spite nearly five years to negotiations over this document’s provisions between the various member states.

In fact, the most damning thing about this entire TPP process is that major elements of the legislation have been leaked—by WikiLeaks, no less—and the government con­tinues to play dumb to the truth within the legislation and how it will specifically impact aspects of the United States economy.

You can read about the benefits of the trade agreement on the OTP website regarding it, but I’m sure you’ll understand how they might be less likely to share the risks and complica­tions such trade laws will have on our Ameri­can economy and legal system.

That all being noted, you can probably see why organizations like the EFF are so vehe­mently opposed to the TPP. This opposition originates primarily over the lack of transpar­ency, questioning the advocacy of a document we hardly know anything about.

The EFF’s own criticism also emerges over a major factor of the TPP’s legislation, relating to digital rights management and intellectual properties.

To me, the EFF’s concerns are also my own. Based on what I’ve learned from the leaked portions of the TPP, the biggest fear I have about the trade agreement is its aggressive proposed punishments for copyright and in­tellectual property violations.

For starters, these violations, under the TPP, would likely enforce harsher criminal penal­ties, forcing jail time on an international scale, rather than the often-civil punishments hand­ed down for copyright violations.

You’ve all probably seen that email from D.B. Brown about downloading infringing files. Believe me, the RIAA and MPAA are con­tinuing to push support for trade agreements like the TPP in order to prosecute violators, and frankly no individual downloading a copy of “Mad Max: Fury Road” should be threat­ened with imprisonment.

The TPP’s focus on Rights Management also scares me. Rights Management, similarly to copyright infringement, primarily has to do with hacking and reverse engineering, where completed technologies are taken apart in order to better understand and modify their functionality.

This is a huge category of activities. Sure, it includes hackers who sell bootlegged copies of Windows and Adobe Photoshop, but it also includes people who modify games and free improvements for decades-old video games that developers abandon.

Depending on the severity of the legislation, it can even include educational institutions re­searching the effects of software and its usage in test environments.

It can include the computer software inside cars and other equipmentthe sort of software that companies like Volkswagen use to trick the EPA on emissions standards, among other heinous activities. It’d prevent security profes­sionals from assessing the safety of software and other technologies we use on a daily basis under the threat of imprisonment.

I may be exaggerating a bit in the scale that the TPP will be ultimately implemented in the United States, but I’m frankly not a fan of any efforts to further complicate hacking and oth­er white-hat activities under such a broad in­ternational set of laws and policies.

In our modern era, I will concede there are very important intellectual property concerns that arise from global business practices.

For any firm operating in regions such as China and elsewhere, it isn’t uncommon for overseas facilities to steal technologies and code in order to reproduce the good at a lower cost and free of any patents or other intellec­tual properties.

But the TPP won’t solve this. China, the greatest infringer, isn’t even a member. If we want to tackle this seriously, we ought to start there, and forget this entire trade agreement.

The future of the TPP is not set in stone. Like any legislation, the final version will need to be released that will ultimately be voted on by the House and Senate, and then signed by the president.

At the rate this legislation has been moving, it might be an entirely new person in the Oval Office to decide whether we should go in on this trade deal. Anything’s possible: In Cana­da, the newly-elected Liberal Party’s Prime Minister David Trudeau is already beginning to show waning support for the TPP, which predecessor Stephen Harper was a strong ad­vocate for.

Still, for a document five years in the mak­ing, it seems concerning enough that it re­mains secret, contains very impactful changes to intellectual properties, and frankly smells rotten.

I have grave concerns if this trade agree­ment continues to be taken seriously without greater transparency and greater changes to its intellectual property provisions.

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