WASHINGTON -- House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has taken the unprecedented step of leaking a secret U.S. trade document, in hopes of pressuring President Barack Obama's administration into disclosing the details of a major trade deal with far-reaching implications on everything from "Buy American" contracting rules to prescription drug prices to internet freedom.
Issa -- who endeared himself to the tech community in 2011 by speaking out against the Stop Online Piracy Act -- is again taking up Silicon Valley's cause in the talks surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the United States and eight Pacific nations. His move follows a barrage of criticism over U.S. demands in the talks, which have alarmed global health experts, domestic labor unions and government transparency advocates.
But a common complaint from nearly every non-profit group monitoring the Trans-Pacific deal is the intense level of secrecy surrounding it. The governments of every nation involved in the talks can see the draft proposals offered by the Obama administration, as can American corporate officials serving on government advisory boards. But the proposals are shielded from the general public, with many nonprofits only made aware of the potential impact on jobs, health or technology through leaked texts.
On Tuesday afternoon, Issa published the entire intellectual property (IP) chapter of the Trans-Pacific agreement as drafted by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the White House agency responsible for negotiating trade deals. The document was previously available online through unofficial channels of questionable legality, but Issa's posting of the document dramatically increases the political pressure on USTR and the Obama administration.
A spokeswoman for USTR told HuffPost that it works to keep nonprofits abreast of its negotiating position, and that it has expanded the number of groups it receives input from under Obama -- including public health groups, internet freedom advocates and major labor unions. Nevertheless, any organizations that are able to see actual negotiation texts must comply with USTR confidentiality rules limiting public disclosure -- a policy intended to improve the agency's ability to reach a deal.
"Putting text of a partially negotiated agreement online could weaken the hand of U.S. negotiators as they work strategically to get the best deal possible for American workers and businesses," USTR spokeswoman Carol Guthrie told HuffPost. "Moreover, USTR could not release the agreement text without breaching its commitment to its trading partners not to do so without their agreement."
While Hollywood movie studios and pharmaceutical companies have long backed aggressive U.S.-government imposed IP trade policies, corporate tech giants have joined internet freedom advocates in objecting to the Trans-Pacific deal's IP provisions, arguing such rules prevent the development of useful new products in the technology space.
Extreme copyright rules backed by Hollywood and Big Pharma formed the core of SOPA, which tech firms argued would throw internet functionality into a legal quagmire and discourage companies from introducing innovative products, for fear of sparking lawsuits. Tech firms have similar fears about the current Trans-Pacific deal. Trade agreements reached in the 1990s helped block recent efforts to reform domestic patent laws. Tech companies are constantly dealing with lawsuits surrounding vague and poorly defined patents, on everything from the hyperlink to the rounded corners of an iPhone. Due to the speed with which the tech sector evolves, the long-term monopolies granted by aggressive IP laws prevent companies from updating and improving on each others' ideas.
Aggressive patent laws also raise the cost of global medicines, as pharmaceutical companies exploit frivolous or secondary patents to maintain monopolies on life-saving medicines, jacking up prices abroad. Global health experts warn that the U.S. position in the Trans-Pacific deal risks undermining a U.S.-funded global AIDS relief effort, particularly in Vietnam, one of the countries involved in the deal with an acute HIV problem and limited economic resources.
USTR's position on multiple aspects of the Trans-Pacific deal stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration's official position on a host of policies, as Issa emphasized in a statement provided to The Huffington Post.
"While the Obama administration speaks publicly about protecting an open Internet and delivering open government, they continue pushing secretive agreements like ACTA and TPP that exclude the public and could undermine individual privacy rights and stifle innovation," Issa said. "They need to explain this apparent inconsistency."
The White House, which declined to comment for this article, opposed SOPA. But Obama signed ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, last year over objections from the tech community and European nations, which argued that the deal's copyright provisions would harm the development of internet technology. Open internet advocates view the Trans-Pacific deal's draft terms as more restrictive than ACTA.
Aspects of the Obama administration's economic platform also conflict with the Trans-Pacific deal. Obama has proposed a tax credit to benefit domestic manufacturers, but USTR's efforts to ban "Buy American" preferences in the market for federal contracts could undercut such efforts. USTR has said such bans will open up foreign markets for other government contracts to American producers. Since the size of the U.S. contract market is much larger than that of all the other Trans-Pacific nations combined, however, domestic labor unions are concerned that the deal will offshore U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Although they have received scant public attention since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, international trade pacts can have dramatic consequences for domestic policy. When the U.S. signs a trade deal, it must conform federal and state laws to the terms of the agreement. That makes future reforms more difficult, since they cannot independently amend the trade pact and are subject to WTO or World Bank sanctions.
Issa's leak follows attention to the deal from activist group the Yes Men and other government transparency advocates at the Trans-Pacific negotiations in Dallas last week. The Yes Men presented U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, an Obama appointee, with its farcical "Corporate Power Tool of the Year" award, during a disruptive presentation at the official corporate reception for the Dallas talks.
Earlier in the evening, Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, joked about his home city's potential lessons for the trade pact. "There is a Latin saying that we use in Dallas called Veni, Vedi, Visa -- we came, we saw, we shopped," Kirk said.
After the Yes Men presented the Corporate Power Tool award, police removed them from the reception.
Disclosure: AOL Inc., The Huffington Post's parent company, lobbied against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress.