POLITICS
03/28/2013 05:59 pm ET | Updated Mar 28, 2013

Obama Administration Begins Free Trade Talks With European Union

WASHINGTON -- After months of pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the White House is following through on President Barack Obama's pledge to negotiate a new free trade agreement with the European Union.

The push is viewed with skepticism by consumer advocacy groups, environmental organizations and public health experts, given that U.S. and EU nations have long been party to trade pacts. The groups fear a new agreement would roll back important regulations in order to boost profits of multinational corporations.

Officials from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative met on Wednesday with many of those groups to receive input on intellectual property terms that should be included in a new deal. Officials emphasized an interest in eliminating the few remaining tariffs between the U.S. and EU, and on removing "regulatory and nontariff barriers" to trade. In several recent trade pacts, the Obama administration has pursued terms favorable to pharmaceutical companies, Hollywood movie studios and publishing companies that have been opposed by much of the tech industry, Internet freedom groups and public health experts. A similar dynamic played out during the debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act, the new Internet standards backed by Hollywood, which online activists blocked in January 2012.

At the meeting, several organizations focused on the harmful economic effects of restrictive intellectual property rules on the tech sector. While movie studios and record labels have long advocated stringent protections, Internet and other high-tech companies have been deluged with patent and copyright lawsuits that discourage Web companies from developing new products. By writing patent and copyright policies that favor Internet-intensive industries like pharmaceuticals and movies, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative risked damaging the broader economy.

"The result of these agreements should not be greater liability for U.S. companies," said Jonathan Band of the Computer and Computer Industry Association, the only corporate organization to attend the meeting. Band, who also represents an association of U.S. libraries, said that any deal should include exemptions and limitations to intellectual property standards, like the "fair use" limitation in American law. Stan McCoy, assistant U.S. trade representative for intellectual property and innovation, countered that Obama administration research shows that Internet-related industries are very important to the U.S. economy.

The U.S. Commerce Department and the Patent and Trademark Office "have developed some work of their own on the importance of the IP to the U.S. economy," McCoy said. "I'm sure there's certain constructive disagreement on exactly where that comes out, but it is something that we take an ongoing interest in understanding." He said he welcomed further discussion of the research.

The work McCoy referred to is an April 2012 report that concludes IP-intensive industries account for 40 million U.S. jobs. But the report was debunked in the tech blogosphere for focusing on trademarks, rather than the copyright and patent issues that form the core of IP policy disputes.

Of the 75 industries cited by the report as "IP-intensive," 60 rely on trademarks rather than patents or copyrights. More than 35 million of the 40 million jobs the report says are created by IP-intensive industries come from trademark-heavy sectors, including grocery stores, beverage manufacturing, paper mills and other industries that have been irrelevant to patent and copyright controversies. The two biggest employers of the "IP-intensive" industries cited were grocery stores and banks.

"It's disappointing to see those numbers still being used as a justification to do whatever certain groups claim is in the interest of 'all rightsholders,' even if their interests are a particularly narrow set of those," Sherwin Siy, a vice president of Internet freedom group Public Knowledge, told HuffPost.

Trade pacts subject U.S. laws and regulations to review by international courts. If American laws violate the terms of a deal, the U.S. can be charged punitive tariffs that harm domestic industry. But the deals are typically negotiated under official conditions of secrecy, garnering very little media attention. Many corporations have found trade an appealing arena for lobbying, because of its ability to bind U.S. law without the transparency required of congressional lobbying efforts. While corporations are typically afforded access to trade pact negotiation texts through positions on official advisory boards, public health advocates and consumer groups are not given the same access. All 14 members of USTR's advisory committee on intellectual property are corporate officials.

Nonprofit groups at Wednesday's meeting urged a transparent negotiation process in which public health advocates and consumer groups would be afforded the same privileges of multinational conglomerates. They also cautioned against including any firm new standards in a trade pact, given significant momentum within the Obama administration itself to update American IP standards. In early March, Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, the top copyright official in the administration, gave a speech calling for softer copyright terms.

Peter Maybarduk, Director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines campaign, presented a letter from 47 nonprofit groups calling for the U.S. Trade Representative to leave intellectual property standards out of the new EU trade deal altogether. Maybarduk noted that the same coalition had helped shut down implementation of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in Europe.

The U.S. Trade Representative urged the organizations to continue providing input into the negotiation process, which is just beginning and will likely continue for several months.

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