US trade office releases information on secret piracy pact

By , IDG News Service |  Government, copyright, counterfeit

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has released some new details about an anticounterfeiting trade agreement that has been discussed in secret among the U.S., Japan, the European Union and other countries since 2006.

The six-page summary of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations provides little specific detail about the current state of negotiations, but the release represents a change in policy at the USTR, which had argued in the past that information on the trade pact was "properly classified in the interest of national security."

The summary of the negotiations, released Monday, says that the countries involved have been discussing how to deal with criminal enforcement of each others' copyright laws. The countries involved have discussed the "scale of infringement necessary to quality for criminal sanctions," as well as the authority of countries to order searches and seizures of goods suspected of infringing intellectual-property laws. The summary does not detail the current state of negotiations in those areas.

The trade pact negotiations have also talked about border measures that countries should take against infringing products and about how to enforce intellectual-property rights over the Internet.

Public Knowledge, a consumer rights group and one of three organizations suing USTR over its refusal to release information on ACTA, praised USTR for releasing the summary, but said more information is needed.

"The dissemination of the six-page summary will help to some degree to clarify what is being discussed," Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president, said in a statement. "At the same time, however, this release can only be seen as a first step forward. It would have been helpful had the USTR elaborated more clearly the goals the United States wants to pursue in the treaty and what proposals our government has made, particularly in the area of intellectual property rights in a digital environment."

Since last June, Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) have filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information about ACTA. USTR had argued that most of the information about the trade pact was classified while releasing just 159 pages of information on the agreement in January. Public Knowledge and EFF said then that USTR was withholding more than 1,300 pages of information.

When President Barack Obama took office in January, he directed U.S. agencies to be more transparent to the public. In early March, USTR denied an FOIA request from KEI, an intellectual-property research and advocacy group, citing national security concerns. But later that month, the agency pledged to undertake a long-term review of its transparency.

The release of the summary "reflects the Obama administration's commitment to transparency," USTR said in a statement. Other countries helped USTR draft the summary, the agency said.

"We look forward to taking more steps to engage with the public in our efforts to make trade work for American families," newly appointed U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement.

The goal of ACTA is to negotiate a "state-of-the art agreement to combat counterfeiting and piracy," according to USTR. Among the nations participating in negotiations are Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland.

The U.S. and Japan began discussing an intellectual-property trade agreement in 2006, with other countries joining discussions later that year, according to the ACTA summary. Formal negotiations began in June 2008.

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