Protests over a controversial international trade agreement have taken on new urgency in recent days, after U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation that would give President Barack Obama's administration broad authority to negotiate the deal.
A coalition of liberal groups, digital rights organizations and lawmakers are gearing up to oppose legislation to fast-track approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress. A group of senators introduced the so-called trade promotion authority bill earlier this month, and last week, committees in the Senate and House of Representatives approved fast-track bills and sent them to their full chambers for votes.
The trade promotion authority legislation would set some congressional priorities for the TPP and other trade deals while allowing the Obama administration to negotiate the deals with limited congressional input. The legislation would prohibit Congress from adding amendments to trade deals negotiated by the administration when it's time for Congress to vote on them.
The TPP, first proposed a decade ago, has been negotiated in secret, but leaks have shown that the U.S. and some other countries are pushing for signatory nations to adopt strong new intellectual property laws. There are several other unrelated complaints about the agreement, but most of the criticism from digital rights groups has focused on copyright issues and on a lack of transparency about the negotiations.
Based on the leaks, the U.S. and other nations are pushing strong new intellectual property protections that would require some signatory countries to rewrite their existing laws, criminalize noncommercial sharing of works protected by copyright, and, critics say, could create new criminal penalties for whistleblowers and journalists who access computer systems without permission.
Fight for the Future, a digital rights group, launched an online campaign opposed to the Trade Promotion Authority legislation about a week ago, and since then, more than 7,500 websites have added links to the Internet Vote effort. Opponents of the legislation have sent more than 40,000 emails and made more than 3,000 telephone calls to U.S. lawmakers, according to the group.
"It's inspiring to see thousands of websites and tens of thousands of Internet users coming together so quickly to condemn this outdated and dangerous [trade] legislation," Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, said by email. "Senators ... should know by now that any law that threatens Internet users' rights to communicate, share, learn, and express themselves will be defeated, and the politicians who attach their names to these toxic policies will pay the price at the polls."
A second effort, a petition calling on the White House to halt TPP negotiations until it opens the text up to the public, has failed to gain traction so far. The petition, on the White House's We the People petition site, has gathered just 60 signatures in six days.
Obama, a Democrat, also faces opposition from some members of his own party. Several of the more liberal Democratic members of Congress have also opposed Obama's call for approval of the fast-track legislation.
The U.S. public needs to see what's in the deal, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, wrote in a blog post last week.
"Don't bother trying to Google" the text of the agreement, she wrote. "The government doesn't want you to read this massive new trade agreement. It's top secret."
Why is the trade deal secret? "Here's the real answer people have given me: 'We can't make this deal public because if the American people saw what was in it, they would be opposed to it,'" she added.
The Obama administration and several business groups have defended the trade promotion authority legislation, saying it will open up foreign markets to U.S. products and services.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership "is good for American businesses and American workers," Obama said during a press conference Tuesday. "We will make the case on the merits as to why it will open up markets for American goods, American exports, and create American jobs. When 95 percent of the world's markets are outside our shores, we've got to make sure that we're out there competing. And I'm confident we can compete."
Intel and trade group the Telecommunications Industry Association have both called on Congress to pass trade promotion authority legislation.
"American industries from agriculture to high-tech depend on selling goods and services to the 95 percent of the world's consumers living outside the United States," Lisa Malloy, director of policy communications for Intel, wrote in a blog post earlier this month.
The trade legislation "is a major milestone in American economic growth and will help businesses large and small create opportunity and success for employees and their families everywhere."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]