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State of the Web: Will U.S. Internet users rally against the TPP? Not likely

Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement copyright law

At the end of next week, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) will host the 14th round of negotiations surrounding a multilateral trade treaty known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The negotiations will last 10 days, from September 6 through 15, in Leesburg, Virginia.

At present, 11 countries are involved in the TPP negotiations: Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, Brunei, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Japan also plans to join the TPP. And countless “stakeholders” — corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Members of Congress, and others — are also involved in the talks. The general public — those affected by implementation of the TPP — have not been invited.

How the TPP targets the Web

As with the contentious Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was largely shut down by the European Parliament on July 4, the TPP negotiations are highly secretive, and the exact text of the treaty is all but unknown. There have, however, been some leaks — most notably, that of the chapter on intellectual property (pdf) and its frightening article 16.

Last Friday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) outlined the problems the TPP could cause for the Internet — problems distrubingly similar to those found in ACTA and the currently-defunct Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), like potential censorship of legitimate speech, innovation-hampering regulation of the Web, a mandate for Internet service providers (ISPs) and intermediaries (like Google, Facebook, and any other website) to monitor Web activity and block access to websites accused of copyright infringement or the facilitation of infringement, and the requirement that ISPs cut Internet access to users allegedly engaged in online piracy.

“Private ISP enforcement of copyright poses a serious threat to free speech on the Internet, because it makes offering open platforms for user-generated content economically untenable,” write Carolina Rossini and Kurt Opsahl of the EFF. “For example, on an ad-supported site, the costs of reviewing each post will generally exceed the pennies of revenue one might get from ads. Even obvious fair uses could become too risky to host, leading to an Internet with only cautious and conservative content.”

The problem of stifling free speech as a result of the TPP is a particularly potent one. The document’s “takedown requirements open the door to abuse,” say Rossini and Opsahl, which could result in copyright claims being used to “strike a serious blow to freedom of expression.”

The gloomy news continues. But rather than paraphrase any further, I suggest you just read the post.

The will to say ‘no’

The EFF’s notes of warning compose a ghastly tune we’ve heard all to often in recent years, and it is blaring crystal clear in the crescendoing outcry confronting the TPP. But for those of us who find meaning in this song of injustice, only one conclusion can be reached: the TPP must be stopped, just as we stopped SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA before it.

At first glance, it would seem as though a chorus of opposition has begun to gather. The EFF’s combative article explaining the potential problems inherit in the TPP repeatedly soared to the highly-trafficked front page of Reddit, the forehead of the Internet; if you can feel feverish indignation there, then a good chance exists that a sickness is brewing. Soon the antibodies of the Web will launch into action in an attempt to fight back against whatever cancer has begun to grow — right?

Perhaps — but I doubt the TPP opposition movement will establish meaningful forces in the U.S., despite the country’s leadership role in pushing the treaty and the effects it may have on our laws and our Web.

…and why we won’t

The secrecy of the TPP negotiations places the first hurdle: without the ability to view the document in its entirety, we lack the authority to fully address our concerns and outrage. This imposed ignorance has the tell-tale nature of a tactical maneuver by those hoping to tightly control the public conversation about a controversial action. Until the full document is exposed, those of us in the dark can be brushed aside for simply ‘not knowing what we’re talking about.’

This is a problem not just for the U.S. anti-TPP movement but for all nations involved. The real obstacle for U.S. Internet users is the TPP’s inherently international nature. About one-third of Americans (110 million people) currently hold passports — a significant jump from the 48 million who had one in 2000. And yet, we remain foolishly unconcerned with international issues (pdf) — at least those that don’t involve natural catastrophes or the dropping of U.S. bombs. The simple fact that discussions surrounding the TPP include the names of other countries will likely cause a good many Americans’ eyes to gloss over.

Another mitigating factor is that the TPP is a trade agreement — a confounding intergovernmental action few have bothered to grasp. During the buildup of opposition to ACTA, we witnessed a slew of misinformed comments, and even “reports,” that labeled that treaty a “bill” or a “law.” Like ACTA, the TPP is neither. I expect this confusion and ignorance to further muddle any chance at genuine, educated opposition to the TPP.

Now, this sweeping, pejorative characterization of my fellow countrymen is not meant to discount the guaranteed involvement of a good many Americans in opposing the TPP. A certain segment of U.S. Web users — the proud disestablishmentarians who click articles like this one for fun — are on the lookout for acts of violence against the Internet. And they will get involved in the tussle, no doubt. Similarly, those who oppose greater globalization will also naturally come out against the TPP — which is, incidentally, far more about increasing the ability for large corporations to make money than it is about stamping out free speech and online innovation. But these factions of activists hold little power against stakeholders of the TPP without the backing of the care-free masses.

Prove me wrong

I say all this after watching U.S. Web users gladly pass the baton of responsibility in opposing ACTA to our cohorts in Europe. Granted, that is where the action was happening. And the anti-ACTA efforts there worked. But as it stands now, there is no excuse for not telling Washington exactly what we think about the TPP. In fact, the responsibility to fight the TPP rests with us. After all, Hollywood movie studios and music labels, and U.S.-based pharmaceutical companies (the most rabid proponents of copyright protections) clearly have their grubby mitts all over the TPP. This makes it primarily our responsibility to reign in the overreach, to cut out the tumor.

So for any of you who have made it this far by sitting on a fence, think of the TPP this way: Your government is willing to unnecessarily sacrifice your rights and the Internet you love for the sake of making a buck. Don’t let them. Read, scream, tweet, post, black out websites, call your Congressmen and President Obama a hundred times. Don’t wait for Google, Facebook, or your geeky friend to stand up. Shed your insular shell right now, and lead the world in shutting this sucka down.

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