Secrecy Around Trade Agreement Causes Stir The U.S. and other developed countries have quietly been negotiating the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement for several years. But secrecy around the talks has led to speculation about what's in the proposed international pact that centers on intellectual property rights.
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Secrecy Around Trade Agreement Causes Stir

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Secrecy Around Trade Agreement Causes Stir

Secrecy Around Trade Agreement Causes Stir

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

For several years, the U.S. and other developed countries have been quietly working on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. But critics say the treaty targets more than just counterfeiters. They argue ACTA could affect everyone who uses the Internet, and they're pushing for more transparency in a negotiating process that they say is being deliberately conducted in secret.

Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: There's a reason you don't hear much about international trade agreements. They are - let's face it - kind of dull, and they're usually not very controversial. But ACTA? ACTA is different.

Professor MICHAEL GEIST (Law, University of Ottawa): I think one feels that you're almost in a bit of a twilight zone. I mean, we're talking about a copyright treaty. And it's being treated as akin to nuclear secrets.

ROSE: Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa. Geist has been one of the loudest critics of ACTA, which he says is a counterfeiting agreement in name only. He thinks the treaty would actually change some of the fundamental rules governing the Internet. But what makes Geist really angry is the way it's been negotiated.

Prof. GEIST: Virtually none of it has been open to the public. Even the early meetings were actually held in secret locations, and so no one even knew where they were taking place.

ROSE: That secrecy has led to all kinds of speculation about what's in ACTA. Under pressure from people like Geist, the U.S. government has begun releasing summaries of the ACTA talks.

Stan McCoy is assistant U.S. trade representative.

Mr. STAN MCCOY (Assistant U.S. Trade Representative): We don't feel the agreement is being negotiated in secret at all. We are definitely committed, as the U.S. government, to facilitate meaningful public input into these negotiations.

ROSE: McCoy repeated the phrase "meaningful public input" three more times during our 15-minute interview. But critics say it's hard to comment meaningfully on a text you can't read. The text of ACTA is not officially available to the general public. That's not unusual for a trade agreement, which can involve tariffs, pricing and other sensitive information. But critics say ACTA is different.

Ms. GIGI SOHN (President, Public Knowledge): This is not a trade agreement. This is a multilateral intellectual property agreement. It's only about intellectual property. And they've called it a trade agreement in order to get secrecy and protection that trade agreements normally get.

ROSE: Gigi Sohn is president of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Public Knowledge. She's one of the few people who has seen a draft of ACTA, although she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement first.

Ms. SOHN: Let me tell you what this is about, OK? This is all about Hollywood and the recording industry wanting telephone and cable companies to filter their networks for copyright infringement.

ROSE: Sohn says ACTA would force Internet providers to take a more aggressive role in policing their networks for illegal file-sharing of movies or music. In one leaked draft, the agreement would require Internet companies to boot repeat offenders off the Internet, and hand over their names to copyright holders without a warrant. That would contradict current U.S. law. But assistant trade representative Stan McCoy insists that is not the goal of ACTA.

Mr. MCCOY: We're looking for coverage that's very similar to - and consistent with - the types of provisions we have in U.S. law. We do not view the ACTA as a vehicle for changing U.S. law.

ROSE: The Motion Picture Association of America says it doesn't want to rewrite U.S. law, either. Rather, MPAA Vice President Greg Frazier says ACTA's real goal is to get other developed countries to catch up with U.S. copyright laws.

Mr. GREG FRAZIER (Vice President, MPAA): We can't stay in business, we can't make more movies, if people are going to steal them all the time. It's really pretty simple.

ROSE: Not to Gigi Sohn at Public Knowledge. She says the copyright enforcement provisions in ACTA would inevitably curtail legitimate speech on the Internet.

Ms. SOHN: People are using blogs now to comment on movies and books and music. You know, you can't determine just by a dumb filter whether something is a fair use, you know, or a lawful use or not.

ROSE: To put an end to speculation about what is or isn't part of ACTA, Sohn and others are calling on the Obama administration to release the full text of the agreement. Chunks of it have already leaked from countries in the European Union. And this month, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for all ACTA documents to be made public.

Law professor Michael Geist says the momentum for transparency seems to be building.

Prof. GEIST: The majority of the European Union favors release of the text Canada, New Zealand. We're dealing almost uniformly here with well-developed democracies who say this just isn't the right way of doing things. I mean, we don't negotiate our laws behind closed doors, in secret.

ROSE: The next round of ACTA talks is scheduled for April in New Zealand. But that's pretty much all we know about it. The official agenda has not been made public.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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