Civil liberties and consumer groups are furious at President Barack Obama for supporting secret international trade negotiations that could wind up rewriting U.S. copyright law. At issue is the International Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which various nations have been hammering out this week at secret talks in Seoul, South Korea. Earlier this week, negotiation materials leaked out of the hush-hush hearings, shocking and alarming civil libertarians and privacy watchdogs.
The groups, which include some of the most influential voices on internet policy, voiced "deep concerns about the lack of transparency and openness" in a letter sent to Obama on Thursday, the day the parley is set to wrap up.
Based on leaked meeting documents, it would appear that the participating nations are crafting measures that would make it easier to crack down on digital piracy -- including cutting off alleged offenders' Web connections -- as well as make it easier for authorities to search and even seize your personal computer or other electronics in an effort to root out copyright infringement.
In particular, it appears that the treaty would provide some kind of "safe harbor" for internet service providers protecting them for prosecution if they comply with the treaty's draconian measures to identify and sanction alleged internet pirates.
Secret meetings in Seoul
The groups' first objection concerns the highly clandestine nature of the meetings.
"As an instrument affecting multiple nations' laws and policy, ACTA should be negotiated in public, as has been done routinely with international intellectual property agreements in the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Trade Organization," the coalition of 16 library, consumer, creator, and civil liberties organizations told the Obama Administration on Thursday. The groups include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Future of Music Coalition, the Liberty Coalition, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Open Content Alliance, the Sunlight Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org, Public Knowledge, and the group Change Congress.
According to the EFF, the U.S. government appears to be pushing for a three strikes policy similar to that just passed in France, "to be part of the new global IP enforcement regime which ACTA is intended to create – despite the fact that it has been categorically rejected by the European Parliament and by national policymakers in several ACTA negotiating countries, and has never been proposed by U.S. legislators."
Prominent public intellectuals such as Harvard's Lawrence Lessig have also voiced their concerns, with Lessig circulating a statement arguing the citizens are "entitled to question whether copyright law as currently crafted makes sense, national security claims notwithstanding."
Global copyright treaty a longtime enigma
For years, ACTA has been cloaked in mystery, with the Bush administration maintaining that such secrecy was required. Obama took this a step further, arguing last spring that a draft of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and related materials are "classified in the interest of national security pursuant to Executive Order 12958." Executive Order 12958, issued in 1995, allows material to be classified only if publication would inflict "damage to the national security and the original classification authority is able to identify or describe the damage."
The letter comes as the secret trade negotiations continue this week in Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. Trade Representative has repeatedly declined to make the draft text of the agreement public and, according to the group of 16, has "actively resisted disclosure of relevant information during the course of litigation under the Freedom of Information Act."
The Administration's secrecy conflicts with President Obama's promise of "a more transparent, collaborative and participatory government," the groups said.
"Much of ACTA's transparency deficit stems from the disconnect between ACTA's apparent aims and its formulation as a trade agreement. In negotiating agreements focusing on traditional trade matters such as tariffs and trade barriers, confidentiality regarding some negotiating positions may be appropriate," the group said. "But ACTA aims to set international legal norms, potentially driving changes to substantive intellectual property legal regimes on an international basis. Attempts to force a multilateral intellectual property agreement through trade processes unsuited for it does a disservice to citizens, public policy, and the USTR alike," the group added.
Not just process; critics say substance 'favors big media'
But the groups aren't just objecting to the secretive nature of the process. They're also attacking the substance of the agreement, which they say is "heavily weighted in favor of big media companies."
"With respect to ACTA's substance, we remain concerned that the terms may not adequately account for all of the interests that would be affected. Intellectual property law requires a balance between the benefits conferred upon creators and the rights of the general public to access and use those creations in free discourse and for the public good," the groups said. "Yet the public and the industries enabling such uses would face crippling liability under an improperly calibrated intellectual property regime. ACTA could increase the risk of participating governments taking an imbalanced approach."
Now, the ball is in the Obama administration's court. We'll see if they are responsive to the coalition's complaints, or ignore them as they continue the now-not-so-secret international trade negotiations.
Follow Sam Gustin, a reporter for DailyFinance, on Twitter here. Follow DailyFinance's tech coverage here.
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