What We Learn (and Don’t Learn) from the TPP Transparency Fact Sheet

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The debate over transparency in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) rages on. Yesterday the US Trade Representative (USTR) released a fact sheet on transparency in the TPP negotiations. The fact sheet basically summarizes how the USTR perceives its transparency efforts to date and how it responds to outcry from members of Congress and the public that the level of secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiations is unacceptable.

While this fact sheet is better than no response at all, it does little to address substantive concerns about secrecy in TPP and in fact only shows how public input and accountability is directly dependent on the open availability of substantive information about the TPP's proposed text.

In this fact sheet, the USTR’s own description of the negotiation process reveals that the public only gets to see the text of the TPP after it’s already been finished and negotiations are closed. Before then, only ITACs get to officially give meaningful, text-based input to the USTR.

The fact sheet also shows how access to the text of the TPP is a prerequisite for public participation and input. The fact sheet trumpets the number of stakeholders that have participated in the US-based negotiation rounds. A closer examination of the USTR’s stakeholder chart reveals that public participation in the TPP process increased tenfold immediately after the US, New Zealand, and Chile proposals for the intellectual property chapter were leaked in early 2011, in addition to the leak of a list of goals for the TPP from the US Chamber of Commerce, PhRMA, and the MPAA (see PK’s TPP timeline here).

In contrast to how the public is treated, the fact sheet gives us a glimpse into the USTR’s interactions with companies that are members of the Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs) that receive special access to the text and are able to influence negotiations. The USTR notes that it has had more than 147 meetings with the ITACs on TPP, and has given them 110 TPP documents in the past two years via a website (that’s about one new document per week).

How does the USTR try to justify giving such extensive access to industry insiders while keeping the public out? The USTR simply says that international trade agreements often touch on “complex and commercially sensitive sectors and issues,” and negotiating parties are more forthcoming when they can keep their proposals secret.

But it’s hard to believe that the executive branch can’t make open proposals that affect complex, commercially sensitive issues, when our own Congress does it all the time. The fact that the public can see which members of Congress support or sponsor a particular bill has not stopped Congress from proposing laws, nor from speaking openly and honestly about bills or amendments.

And speaking of Congress, the USTR fact sheet says that it has worked extensively with Congress, but several Senators (update: and over 130 members of Congressstrongly disagree. As TechDirt noted after a recent Senate hearing, the USTR’s consultations with Congress do not include actually giving congressional staffers access to the text, and even members of Congress must travel across town to only view the text that hundreds of industry advisors can pull up with the click of a button.

The USTR’s fact sheet is helpful for taking stock of the current state of transparency in the TPP negotiations, but unfortunately it only reveals how much secrecy remains before the public and its representatives can have meaningful, fully-informed input into this enormous trade agreement. Regardless of the continued struggle for transparency, Public Knowledge will be traveling to TPP negotiations in San Diego next week to advocate for balanced copyright provisions and urge the negotiating countries to reject provisions that will favor incumbent businesses at the expensive of consumers and innovative competitors. We will keep you updated as the negotiations progress.

For more information about copyright and the TPP, visit www.tppinfo.org.

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