Brief session description:
Thursday, July 14, 2016 – Controversy over trade agreements has reached a critical point. The Internet’s impacts and possibilities tied to the transparency of trade negotiations are among the most contentious issues today. The success of the multistakeholder process of engagement in other fora has cast doubt on arguments made in favor of the closed negotiation system currently used. Building on work done in Brussels as part of the Strategy Meeting on Catalyzing Reform of Trade Negotiation Processes, this highly participatory panel examined opportunities for the U.S. to consider allowing more input into the trade-negotiation processes. This panel used the top five ideas generated in the Brussels meeting to facilitate discussion and debate. Following this session, the moderator agreed to correlate the ideas generated with those surfaced during the Brussels meeting, with the goal of providing information about the applicability of proposed resolutions and ideas to the U.S. trade negotiation process. Read a written account and view video highlights on this page or see the fully archived session here.
Details of the session:
The session was moderated by Doug Palmer, senior trade reporter for Politico. Panelists included:
- David Snead, vice chairman and co-founder, I2coalition
- Burcu Kilic, legal and policy director, Public Citizen
- Jayme White, chief advisor, international competitiveness and innovation, U.S. Senate Committee on Finance
- Ari Giovenco, director of trade and international policy, Internet Association
- Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
Striking the balance between promoting digital trade and protecting the privacy rights of consumers in trade deals emerged as an area of much debate during an IGF-USA 2016 session on trade policy strengths, weaknesses and potential reforms. A primary point of argument was the secrecy surrounding often years-long negotiation processes.
Using the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the main framework for the discussion, panelists expressed varied views over balancing the need for some secrecy with the responsibility to serve the overall public good, not just the economic interests of businesses and government.
David Snead, co-founder and policy working group chair of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, said greater transparency from the U.S. government would strengthen the American public’s understanding of complex trade policies.
“I am not convinced that people and the public in general need to be somehow protected from ‘complicated ideas’ or ‘difficult-to-parse legal issues,’” Snead said.
TPP seen as proof there’s need for examination of ways in which policy information is shared
While every speaker agreed there is a need for more transparency, there was disagreement over what information should be made publicly available.
Those who oppose the TPP cited the lack of inclusivity in the process, while those who support the TPP discussed the economic benefits and the government’s need for some privacy.
Burcu Kilic, legal and policy director of Public Citizen—an organization that advocates for open information and is working to try to win the public more access to the details before the government signs off on trade agreement—said it is quite unfortunate that some key negotiation information around the TPP that should have been made public in order to be fairly weighed and commented upon by interested citizens were not made accessible.
Kilic, perhaps the panel’s most outspoken critic of the TPP, said several chief negotiators have declined to answer questions about the nature of the negotiations on the basis of national security, saying they do not wish to reveal the U.S. playbook.
She added that relevant stakeholders are largely removed from the entire trade-negotiation process.
“The issue is the text,” Kilic said. “We need the text. We have to see the text. Without seeing the text, we can’t rely on the summaries.”
Rotenberg: People may lose trust in online economy
Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said the issue of accessibility is of particular importance.
EPIC has filed several records requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Though a successful FOIA request would likely offer a limited understanding of the details of the TPP, Rotenberg said that method has been one way to increase government transparency for key stakeholders and general public.
“If you want to learn more of the history of the TPP, a well-done FOIA request and active pursuit should give you some answers,” Rotenberg said.
Rotenberg added that he opposes the TPP because the negotiating process wasn’t as open as it should have been. “I really don’t think it’s going to be in the long-term interest of the online economy to try to sneak through these provisions that undermine trust and confidence,” he said.
Secrecy seen as necessary to gain negotiating edge
Jayme White, chief advisor for international competitiveness and innovation for the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, presented the argument that a full retelling of trade negotiation talks could prove detrimental, hurting the United States’ ability to make favorable deals.
White also said a large outpouring of information would not offer the average person very much insight.
“For 99.99 percent of the people, dropping a bunch of text on them is not really helpful,” White said.
Art Giovenco, director of trade and international policy at the Internet Association, said he supports the TPP because it will “allow small businesses to access (e-commerce) markets in a frictionless way.”
“Our goal is to promote growth, innovation and a free and open Internet,” Giovenco said. “We think international trade is essential.”
White and Giovenco agreed with the others that greater transparency would be needed for a valuable multistakeholder approach to trade negotiations.
When government agencies withhold information about trade negotiations, Rotenberg said negative speculation often arises from excluded stakeholders and the general public.
“Federal agencies are very happy to disseminate the kind of information that makes them look good, but they’re reluctant to release the information that might raise concerns,” Rotenberg said.
After the panel discussion, moderator Doug Palmer, senior trade reporter for Politico, said he was happy to see opponents and supporters of the TPP join together to discuss their differences. He said he hopes to see greater efforts for government transparency in the process of trade negotiations.
“There was a range of opinions, but the general consensus was that the administration could be doing more to keep people informed of what these discussions are about,” Palmer said. “You can’t completely throw open the discussions because there’s a need for some confidentiality in order to give the negotiators space to strike a deal and respect other countries’ sensitivities.”
– By Bryan Anderson
The multimedia reporting team for Imagining the Internet at IGF-USA 2016 included the following Elon University School of Communications students, staff and faculty:
Bryan Anderson, Janna Anderson, Bryan Baker, Elizabeth Bilka, Ashley Bohle, Courtney Campbell, Colin Donohue, Melissa Douglas, Mackenzie Dunn, Maya Eaglin, Christina Elias, Rachel Ellis, Caroline Hartshorn, Paul LeBlanc, Emmanuel Morgan, Joey Nappa, Diego Pineda Davila, Alyssa Potter, Kailey Tracy, Andrew Steinitz, Anna Zwingelberg