Transatlantic Ties That Bind

January 23rd, 2015 by

What’s going on behind the closed doors of TTIP discussions?

Even though the internet largely exists beyond national governance, concerns are being expressed that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could impose greater censorship and corporate control over the web and its innumerable users. Discussions have been taking place behind closed doors for the last 18 months as the American Government and European Union try to abolish the remaining trade barriers between these two economic superpowers. Their intention is to create a transatlantic free trade zone where companies have one overarching set of rules and regulations to abide by. This would give firms more power to expand into foreign markets, while reducing the ability of sovereign governments to interfere in private sector activities.

These proposals have caused alarm among many who see TTIP as facilitating an invasion of privacy akin to the late unlamented ACTA proposals. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement was rejected by the European Parliament two years ago when politicians lost confidence in it. ACTA would have required internet service providers to keep detailed records of each individual user’s activities to enforce copyright and patent disputes. The EU was forced to deny last year that TTIP would invoke the spirit of ACTA, saying “intellectual property rights issues…will only be a relatively small element.” It also claimed that there will be no provision on ISP liability in the forthcoming agreement.

However, these claims are hard to substantiate because – significantly – nobody knows what Section V of TTIP actually contains. It relates to electronic communications services and networks, but with so much secrecy surrounding these negotiations it could effectively enshrine anything into law. It’s believed that data privacy laws will be relaxed and Freedom of Information requests about the clinical trials of pharmaceutical firms will be restricted, but this hasn’t been confirmed or denied.

The computing and IT industry is particularly exercised by TTIP as web-based professionals are more aware than most of the internet’s susceptibility to third-party interference. Although the EU claims that the transfer and storage of data should be governed by individual member states, America is far less supportive of data protection as a concept. It’s also hard to accept promises of fairness in this regard when the NSA has reportedly bugged EU offices and infiltrated its computer networks. Rumours are circulating that US-based media giants want rigorous enforcement of any copyright infringement, with the ability to monitor all ISP data transfers and even block people from going online if they are accused of copyright violations. This would be hard to enforce, but it suggests a nanny-state approach to the internet that has hitherto only been seen under repressive Communist regimes.

The potential benefits of TTIP for web-based companies are seemingly limited. Free trade as a concept should be cautiously encouraged, and there may be less bureaucracy for firms wanting to market software or hardware on both sides of the Atlantic. More stringent copyright protection may also be useful against overseas clones and patent thefts. Although TTIP will contain a chapter dedicated to SMEs, official comments indicate a focus on manufacturing firms (who have issues such as transaction costs and conformity regulations to deal with), rather than media or web-based companies where European and American legislation already has many similarities.

In truth, software firms and online enterprises won’t realise how TTIP will affect them until it’s been enshrined in law. By that point, penalties for accidentally publishing a Getty image or using an ambient piano loop penned by a little-known musician could be disproportionate to any alleged transgression. Terms like “accused” and “suspected” are used by people with insider knowledge of TTIP negotiations, instead of more definitive language like “convicted” or “guilty”. It may be that small businesses will have to dedicate considerable resources in the future to checking everything they publish or do to ensure nobody can sue them. It’s also safe to presume that any legislative changes being aggressively lobbied by the big media firms will favour their own interests over those of sole traders and spare-room enterprises, even though many of today’s media giants were themselves entrepreneurial start-ups to begin with.

It seems ironic that TTIP could herald major changes for web-based businesses, even though these companies will effectively have no say in what is decided or how it will affect them. The best option for anyone concerned about this closed-doors negotiation process is to register their dissatisfaction online and hope that any subsequent legislation doesn’t prove to be too draconian.

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