TPP trade pact spreads SOPA-like censorship worldwide

The deal could dramatically expand copyright enforcement to hinder access to information and stifle free expression on the Web

TPP trade pact spreads SOPA-like censorship worldwide

Details of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement were finally released late last week following a secretive, seven-year negotiating process. The purported trade deal's 6,194 pages of mind-numbing legalese actually cover a wide range of policy questions that have little to do with tariffs, imports, or exports -- including a chapter on intellectual property that will likely dismay supporters of an open Internet.

President Obama may boast that the trade bill eliminates more than 18,000 taxes that countries impose on U.S. exports, but TPP also enshrines the very measures sought by SOPA, a controversial copyright infringement bill that failed in Congress three years ago.

But unlike legislation that can be amended or repealed, the zombie-SOPA provisions in TPP are "unamendable more or less forever, because any change at a later time violates the trade treaty and invites trade sanctions from every other country that signed the deal. It makes a more permanent change in U.S. law than anything short of a constitutional amendment," writes the Washington Post.  

TPP poses another end run around Congress that would achieve the same goals as SOPA: a dramatic expansion of copyright enforcement, without clear fair use provisions necessary to protect free speech.

"The agreement poses a grave threat to our basic right to access information and express ourselves on the Web and could easily be abused to criminalize common online activities and enforce widespread Internet censorship," writes Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for Freedom.

In particular, the Intellectual Property chapter of TPP "reads as if it were written directly by lobbyists from Hollywood, the record industry, and big pharmaceutical companies (because it was)," according to the digital rights group.

For starters, TPP countries will have to enforce copyrights for 70 years after the creator's death, locking away a huge amount of content from online use. "This comes as a huge cost for public access to culture, while there has been no empirical evidence that this incentivizes the creation of creative works. This eats away at the public domain," says consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen

ISPs will be cast as online copyright cops responsible for taking down content -- without a court order -- upon a copyright holder's request. ISPs are also granted legal immunity in case they take down something they shouldn't have, which encourages them to err on the side of copyright holders, rather than free speech.

In addition, "provisions requiring ISPs to take measures to combat infringement may compel increasing use of algorithms or 'bots' to scan works for its inclusion of copyrighted content, where even non-infringing uses of works (such as when it is a fair use) are taken down from the Internet," Public Citizen warns.

There are already numerous cases of DMCA being misused to censor the Internet. Now many of the worst aspects of U.S. copyright law will be exported around the world.

TPP will help undermine online anonymity by forcing countries to publish databases of contact information of domain name registrants. While this is particularly dangerous for dissenting voices in repressive countries, it also exposes many average website owners to attention from identity thieves, online harassers, and trademark trolls.

The agreement also seeks to stifle whistleblowers and investigative journalism by criminalizing "the fraudulent disclosure, or alternatively, the unauthorized and willful disclosure, of a trade secret, including by means of a computer system." Such provisions echo the draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and could criminalize, for example, the Guardian's reports on documents it received from Edward Snowden

TPP bans tampering with DRM locks on any devices and criminalizes those who share the tools to do so -- impacting everyone who unlocks their phone or circumvents DRM on a computer to use Linux. There are other prohibitions against the removal of rights management information, even if it's done while creating something totally legal, like cropping a photo with a watermark on it in order to use it as part of a fair use creation. This will make life more difficult for those who quote or reference existing works.

Another unpleasant surprise in TPP is the impact it could have on cyber security. The deal prohibits signer countries from asking software companies for access to their source code. While U.S. software companies currently want this provision because they make most of the mass market software, "that's likely to change, especially given the ease of entry into smartphone app markets," the Washington Post writes. "If other countries can inspect U.S. source code, they'll find it easier to spot security flaws, so the U.S. government would like to keep other countries from doing that. But I doubt U.S. security agencies are comfortable letting Vietnam write apps that end up on the phones of their employees without the ability to inspect the source."

The 12 countries that are party to TPP -- the United States, Japan, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam -- have two years to ratify the agreement. Provisions allow for it to take effect if at least six countries, comprising 85 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of the group, sign on, which means U.S. ratification is essential.

Obama achieved fast-track status for the deal, meaning Congress must vote yes or no for a simple-majority ratification, with no opportunity for amendments. The margin in the House, where 28 Democrats joined with 191 Republicans to barely approve fast-track authority, could be slim. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump have all voiced opposition to the deal.

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