Groups complain of continued secrecy about trade pact

By , IDG News Service |  Government, copyright, trade

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) continues to withhold important details about a closely held copyright enforcement trade agreement, despite promises from U.S. President Barack Obama to release more information, two digital rights groups said Wednesday.

USTR released 36 pages about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on April 30, but there are still more than 1,000 pages on the antipiracy agreement being withheld, digital rights groups Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said. ACTA, being negotiated among the U.S. and several other countries in secret, could require countries agreeing to the pact to enforce each other's copyright laws, according to a summary released in early April.

"We are very disappointed with the USTR's decision to continue to withhold these documents," EFF senior counsel David Sobel said in a statement. "The president promised an open and transparent administration. But in this case and others we are litigating at EFF, we've found that the [president's] new guidelines liberalizing implementation of the Freedom of Information Act haven't changed a thing."

ACTA could have a huge impact on U.S. residents' privacy and on innovative new technologies, the groups said.

One of the documents released suggests that treaty negotiators are looking at regulating the Internet, the groups said. The document lists as a copyright enforcement challenge "the speed and ease of digital reproductions" and "the growing importance of the Internet as a means of distribution."

The two groups filed a lawsuit against USTR in September, complaining that the agency had largely ignored their Freedom of Information Act request to disclose details of the trade pact, which has been negotiated among the U.S., Japan, the European Union and other countries since 2006. USTR initially released 159 pages about ACTA but denied access to 1,300 other pages, saying that information was withheld for reasons of national security or to protect the USTR's deliberative process.

After continued pressure from the two groups and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), an intellectual-property research organization, the USTR promised in March to review the transparency of its trade negotiations. Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also reiterated Obama's promises for a more transparent government.

USTR released a six-page summary of ACTA in early April and 36 additional pages later in the month.

EFF and Public Knowledge continue to have major concerns about the pact, the groups said. Large intellectual-property companies have publicly requested that ISPs be required to filter their customers' Web communications for copyright-infringing material, they noted. The Recording Industry Association of America also wants ISPs to kick off customers after repeat allegations of copyright infringement.

"What we've seen tends to confirm that the substance of ACTA remains a grave concern," Public Knowledge staff attorney Sherwin Siy said in a statement. "The agreement increasingly looks like an attempt by Hollywood and the content industries to perform an end-run around national legislatures and public international forums to advance an aggressive, radical change in the way that copyright and trademark laws are enforced."

USTR continues to examine its transparency, said Stanford McCoy, assistant U.S. trade representative for intellectual property and innovation. "The transparency issue is one we take seriously at USTR," McCoy said Wednesday while speaking at a Computer & Communications Industry Association event in Washington, D.C.

But USTR can't conduct sensitive negotiations in public, McCoy added. "Some folks are never going to be satisfied that you're doing enough," he said.

The USTR is trying to "find the right formula" to achieve the transparency Obama has asked for and continue to negotiate trade agreements that the president wants, McCoy said.

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