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ACTA: the danger quietly lurking under the surface
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jducoeur
I am occasionally reminded that the problem with the conspiracy theorists isn't just their skill at finding deep dark conspiracies that don't really exist -- it's that so many of them miss the ones that *do* exist and aren't nearly so secret.

The current best example of this is ACTA, the anti-counterfeiting treaty currently being developed in the deadest secrecy possible (which isn't all that secret) by a variety of major countries. As Ars pointed out this weekend, ACTA is going *way* beyond its theoretical remit -- it's now getting to point of creating its own self-perpetuating secretariat that may well take over control of a lot of world intellectual property management.

As a treaty, ACTA may or may not be fundamentally evil (I'm concerned but not certain); as a process, it's a total fuckup. This is a *very* important treaty, which will govern all sorts of intellectual-property issues in the years to come. But it has been shrouded in secrecy, to the point where the European Parliament has (by a massive non-partisan majority) issued a statement condemning the whole thing and demanding to be let in on the negotiations. (That is, even the Parliament has been kept out of the loop, depending on leaks to find out what's going on.)

I'm really immensely disappointed in the White House over this one. In most cases, I can at least see their side of why they have made the compromises they have, but this one's unforgiveable -- there is no excuse for negotiating something this critical and far-reaching without allowing public commentary. Yes, that makes the process harder -- but major treaties are *supposed* to be difficult, lest they be too casually over-reaching.

(Mind, I don't think there's anything particular to the Obama administration here: most presidents in the past couple of decades have been too fond of secrecy. But transparency has been a specific goal of this administration, and they are absolutely failing in it in this particular respect. Their excuse is that their negotiating partners are demanding the secrecy, but I call bullshit: the US is the 300-pound gorilla of the IP world, and should damned well use its leverage to make this work better.)

Note that I'm not specifically criticizing the treaty itself -- given that I have little better than hearsay to go on, that's hard to do. (Which is my point.) From the rumors, I'd probably give it a C, getting some things right and some things wrong. But the process gets an F...
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...there is no excuse for negotiating something this critical and far-reaching without allowing public commentary.

Seems to me that given the current political climate there is good reason - announcing and discussing anything before it is fully baked and ready for a vote is pretty much asking for a knife to be stuck into it.

There is no excuse for ratifying something this critical and far reaching without public commentary. But the form of the treaty probably ought to be rather well-fleshed out before that discussion begins.

While I can understand that argument in principle, in practice this seems to be a good illustration of where it can fall down. The problem is that the secrecy has been leveraged by the biggest and most powerful players involved -- that is, Big Copyright -- in order to shut out all the public-interest commentary that tends to oppose their views. So it is looking quite likely that what comes out at ratification time is going to be sufficiently unbalanced that it's going to turn into a fireball at that point. Whether it will survive the experience is unclear: the fact that nearly the entire European Parliament appears to be digging in against it isn't a good sign.

I probably wouldn't mind it so much if the damned process at least included all the relevant players. But it has very deliberately excluded *all* non-executive public representation (both legislative and NGOs), while apparently including the major corporate players through the back door, so the result appears to be lopsided in favor of the corporatist / statist view of the world.

Politics is all feedback loops. You're correct that observers of the political process often change that process (and sometimes make it impossible), but trying to prevent that often just puts it off, and can make it even worse later. In particular, now is the time when compromise can and should occur. By preventing that now, it makes it more likely that things will come to loggerheads later, when views are more entrenched...

I probably wouldn't mind it so much if the damned process at least included all the relevant players.

That sounds like a legit complaint.

In particular, now is the time when compromise can and should occur.

You have been watching US politics as much as I have. The concept of "compromise" has rather left the lexicon for the moment.

Though, thinking about the other high profile topics in current discussion, if this were brought up it would be completely lost. Compared to health care, jobs/stimulus, and war, I doubt the issue of copyright would rate comment in the public mind, and if the public isn't going to be incensed about it, the Congresscritters are not apt to pay much attention to public opinion. Quite simply - nobody is going to lose a Congressional seat over this matter.

You have been watching US politics as much as I have. The concept of "compromise" has rather left the lexicon for the moment.

True, but remember that this is an international treaty we're talking about, on a subject that is largely at right angles to current American politics. I don't think the Copyright Absolutism vs. Freedom to Copy argument maps in any obvious way to the American left/right divide. (Indeed, I think that *most* of Congress is on the side of the Copyright Extremists.)

You're certainly correct that this is unlikely to become a firestorm in the American political mind. But in terms of international relations, it's a big deal -- for example, it goes right to the heart of a lot of current American / Chinese trade issues.

So when I talk about "compromise", I'm not talking about the American left and right at all -- I'm talking about American Big Copyright, the Internet-centric opposition to that, the European Parliament, the Chinese government, and probably several other key players. There may or may not exist a middle ground to find between them, but I'm fairly sure that having a more solidly-defined treaty before it is revealed makes it less likely that one will be sought...

From the rumors, I'd probably give it a C, getting some things right and some things wrong.

What does it get right?


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