Capture, sunlight, and the TPP leak

Yesterday, Wikileaks leaked the draft IP chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).  This is the first of two posts I’ll make on the significance of the leak.  In this post, I discuss why the leak matters from the process perspective.  In the next, I’ll point out detailed substantive issues in the draft’s copyright provisions.  Unsurprisingly, the process and the substance are closely intertwined.

Up until this leak, only a subset of domestic IP stakeholders has had access to the TPP text.  The U.S. Trade Representative has shown the draft text to its closed advisory committees, but not to anybody else.  Content industries and pharmaceutical industries sit on the IP advisory committee.  Internet industries, smaller innovators, generics companies, and public interest groups do not.

This is no accident.  When Congress established the trade negotiating system, it exempted the Trade Representative from requirements of an open government law that was enacted to prevent agency capture, the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  FACA requires transparency, a limited term length for industry advisory committees, and balanced membership on those committees.  The trade advisory committee on IP does not have balanced membership.  It is not subject to public oversight.   And it has an extended term limit, at the discretion of the USTR.  Other open government laws also don’t apply—the USTR exempts itself from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by claiming a national security exemption, and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) doesn’t apply to international lawmaking. As a consequence, the U.S. role in international IP lawmaking is captured through one-sided industry advice.

The USTR is supposed to be exporting US IP law.  But what the USTR exports is not US law.  The USTR paraphrases US law; it doesn’t export our statutes.  This process allows information capture to have substantive consequences.

The paraphrasing USTR sends out is worse than our law. It’s less balanced, and it’s missing things. In places, the USTR misrepresents that one side of a current circuit split is the authoritative word on issues that deeply divide domestic constituents.

These skewings and omissions are not an accident. Some are directly requested by the IP advisory committee—you can see the requests in past advisory committee reports on other free trade agreements.  Others are the result of the USTR’s failing to consult public interest, academics, or opposing industries, who would point out what must be included, what’s wrong, and which omissions matter.

Balanced advice is necessary at the level of the text.  The USTR recently conducted a series of “stakeholder phone calls,” where it takes questions on broad policy issues.  These calls are transparency theater, not transparency.   They lump together stakeholders on an impossibly wide range of issues—from dairy to textiles to IP.  Discussions are high-level, where many of the problems with USTR’s policies are textual problems.  The devil, in law, is very much in the details.

The USTR is captured in other ways, too.  There is a significant revolving door problem. USTR negotiators come from and leave for employment in the same IP industries that sit on its advisory committee.  But the crux of the problem is that nobody outside of the advisory committees sees the text.

This is why the TPP leak is so important: it levels the playing field.  It lets those who aren’t on the advisory committees, like me, find and point to misrepresentations the USTR is making.  If there is one thing I’d say to our negotiating partners, it’s this: find yourself a good U.S. lawyer who can tell you what is actually in U.S. IP law.  And let them read what you’re negotiating.

Our domestic IP law is the result of democratic political process.  Even if that process has been subject to significant collective action problems, it still shows compromise.  Constituents on opposing sides of an IP issue arrive at legal meaning through statutory and regulatory compromise, and litigation.  Courts play an important role in reinserting balance into the system.  The international agreements we negotiate and sign are produced by a closed and captured process.  What little balance we achieve domestically is not what we are sending abroad.

This approach will have consequences.  As many rightfully point out, it will harm developing countries.  But it will also harm domestic constituents.  Google now makes over 50% of their profits overseas, and we export copyright law that will make it more difficult for them to operate abroad.  What’s more, the Internet is global—digital copyright law made abroad affects online content available to people here.  And the law the USTR exports affects our policymaking process at home.  It binds us to detailed IP law created by advising incumbents.  Deviations from that law may result in threats of trade sanctions.

Killing fast track is one way to change the system.  If fast track is stopped, Congress will have much more input into the trade process.  It will be able to amend trade agreements.  But this is a blunt instrument, and it might kill international trade.  A more tailored combination of changing the advisory system, giving the USTR precise and enforceable negotiating objectives, and increasing transparency could produce the changes we need.  This is why I signed the law professors’ letter calling for transparency in trade, issued today. One leak won’t fix things, but it’s certainly a start.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Many thanks to Wikileaks for doing what we rightfully expect our government to do.

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