No, the Trans-Pacific Partnership isn’t ‘extreme Internet censorship’

November 18, 2013

United States Trade Representative Michael Froman. (APEC 2013)

Fight for the Future was one of the most important grass-roots organizations that rallied opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, culminating in the defeat of the legislation in January 2012. Since then, SOPA has become a potent symbol of copyright excesses, and copyright reformers routinely invoke it to rally opposition to policies they oppose.

Fight for the Future does just that in a petition page opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a secret trade treaty whose "intellectual property" chapters was released by WikiLeaks last week. The FFTF Web site warns of an "extreme SOPA-like Internet Censorship Plan."

"WikiLeaks has released documents exposing an extreme internet censorship plan called the Trans-Pacific Partnership," the group says. "We know from the leaked drafts that the TPP will make the Internet more expensive, censored, and policed."

Yet the blog post FFTF links to to back up that claim doesn't say anything about an "extreme internet censorship plan." Indeed, that blog post is an analysis of a 2-year-old version of the TPP, not the more recent one released by WikiLeaks. And it doesn't mention any provisions that could be plausibly described as an Internet censorship plan, unless you consider copyright itself a form of censorship.

This kind of hyperbole has provided a rhetorical opening for the TPP's supporters. Speaking in Hollywood on Friday, the nation's lead trade negotiator Michael Froman denied that TPP has anything to do with SOPA's controversial Internet blacklisting scheme. And he's right. The SOPA provisions that attracted the most intense opposition online are nowhere to be found in the TPP drafts that have leaked so far. By raising the spurious specter of SOPA, TPP opponents have given supporters an easy way to defend the treaty without addressing legitimate concerns about the treaty.

And there are legitimate concerns. The TPP would export some of the worst aspects of U.S. copyright law, including extremely long copyright terms, legal rules that bar circumvention of copy-protection measures, and the criminalization of non-commercial file sharing. Even worse, some copyright scholars believe it includes pro-Hollywood provisions that are at odds with current U.S. copyright law.

The Obama administration does bear some of blame for the confusion. The secrecy surrounding the TPP encouraged copyright activists to transform the TPP into a larger-than-life villain. If the administration had done a better job of consulting both sides of the copyright reform movement during the course of the negotiations, perhaps it wouldn't have attracted such an intense backlash when a version of the treaty finally saw the light of day.

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Brian Fung | November 18, 2013