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Bringing SOPA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The machinery to dominate global intellectual property by American fiat was further tightened by the announcement of Robert Holleyman’s as deputy US trade representative.  President Obama’s announcement is just another reminder what sources of inspiration are governing the drive by Washington to control the downloading and dissemination of information via the Trans-Pacific Partnership.   After all, Holleyman was a former lobbyist of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the bill introduced by US Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tx) to gift US law enforcement authorities with the means to combat copyright infringements.

Indeed, Holleyman’s own blurb as an author for The Huffington Post considers him as “one of the 50 most influential people in the intellectual property world”, an individual who “was instrumental in putting into place the global policy framework that today protects software under copyright law.”  Such is the nature of mislabelled internationalism – Washington’s policy by another name.

Holleyman has also been heavily involved as a former president of the Business Software Alliance, a body representing the main software vendors including Apple, IBM, and Microsoft. Through the consortium, Holleyman unintentionally put the problems of SOPA, and its sister legislation, PROTECT-IP, in the bright spotlight.  He found himself fighting, at least for a time, a losing battle.  Protest against them was extensive, with January 18, 2012 featuring the “largest online protest in history”.[1]  Congress took heed, shelving the bills.  The vendors pondered the next move.

SOPA’s reach would have been global, enabling US law enforcement the means to target websites and individuals outside its jurisdiction. The carceral provisions of the bill were also hefty – five year prison terms for downloading unauthorised content.

It would have also been a rather formidable mechanism to insinuate censorship into the Internet.  The legislation would allow the content provider or the US Justice Department to block sites hosting material supposedly in breach of copyright.  Having such a provision would effectively overburden internet service providers to err on the side of caution and “over-block”[2] material.  If ever you want to enshrine censorship, a fine way of doing so is frightening the hosts into censoring themselves.

The secret negotiations of the TPP have proven to be a feast of select company.  The negotiators themselves, such as Stefan Selig[3], nominee for under-secretary for international trade at the Commerce Department, have a direct line to the Bank of America.  Selig’s accounts have been inflated to the tune of $9.1 million in bonus pay and $5.1 million in incentive pay.  Happy is the bank that can sue for diminished assets and target governments in courts of law.

The clubbable ones are the software demons who have been “cleared” to have briefings, some 700 “stakeholders”.  The “cleared advisors”[4] also represent groups such as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Entertainment Software Association, and the Recording Industry Association of America.

While the premise of having such vendors involved is ostensibly to protect innovation, the converse is true.  The world of innovation does not matter to those who claim they have the ideas and want to protect them at cost. That is a recipe for sloppiness and envy.

The anti-democratic slant in the TPP process has also impressed itself upon observers.  The press, and even members of Congress, have been kept at bay.  Till parts of the treaty were published by WikiLeaks, elected officials could only view the document on visiting the Trade Representative Office.  They would not be able[5] to reproduce or transcribe it.

While SOPA and its twin PIPA were shelved indefinitely, the Obama administration has decided shop in other forums to enforce some of their provisions.  One way of doing so is through the faulty premise of free trade, which is simply another way of making some trade freer than others.  The American firm features prominently in that guise of freedom.

Aspects of the leaked intellectual property chapter of the TPP so far indicate a model with SOPA trimmings.  Provisions, for example, holding ISPs liable for hosting copyright infringement, have been preserved.  The life of certain, corporate-owned copyrights will also be extended.  In other words, this is SOPA by stealth, a process that “could not [be] achieved through an open democratic process.”[6]

The fact that the Obama administration has also sought to sideline Congress in the debate is indicative of that.  As Henry Farrell[7] observed, “The United States appears to be using the non-transparent Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations as a deliberate end run around Congress on intellectual property, to achieve a presumably unpopular set of policy goals.”  Senate Democrats have been mindful of their shrinking role, and have blocked the president’s attempt to obtain “fast-track authorisation”.

The effect of such authorisation would give the administration scope to limit congressional consultation while using its prerogative powers.  Congress would become, in effect, a chamber of marionettes.  Appointments such as Holleyman’s show little change of heart away from that policy.  The copyright vanguard, along with the dance of secrecy, is digging its heels in.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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