The Evil, Boring Trade Triad

John Oliver did a terrific number on the net neutrality debate to expose the fuckery involved in making shitty public policy, but the best line in his whole bit was this:

“If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”

begin rant/

That’s pretty much the strategy behind the triad of massive, corporate-driven trade agreements which are currently being negotiated: TPP, TTIP, and the recently discovered* TISA (*recently discovered by activists like me, that is).

I’ve been fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for over two years now for EFF, over copyright provisions that would, in a few words, restrict free speech online, limit how we can all create and remix culture, and in several oppressive ways, control how we are allowed to understand and modify the technology that we use every day. It would massively expand and export already broken copyright laws to countries that don’t have them, and elevate them as new “international standards” for others to emulate and to which they would become pressured to conform.

In the beginning of last year, another new trade agreement was announced during Obama’s State of the Union Address—one that would encompass all the European Union countries and the United States. It’s called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or T-TIP, for short). Based upon news reports, it seems like it’s riddled with so much controversy that the EU and US still can’t even decide which policies to include in it. We haven’t covered it much at EFF since we don’t yet even know if it’s going to include copyright or digital privacy-regulating provisions, but it’s very, very likely that it will.

Alright so we have TPP, TTIP…and now TISA, the Trade in Services Agreement. Just as with net neutrality (although Tim Wu is the one that should be to blame for coining that term…but whatever), policymakers have adopted the most boring names for the most EVIL things they’re trying to pass into law. In the case of the Evil Trade Triad—it’s corporate interests pushing for the laws of their choosing into international law.

I often get asked, “Who even cares about international law though? Isn’t it mostly ignored?”

Totally fair question.

The thing is that when it does get enforced, it’s done selectively and almost always for geopolitical, economic reasons. The danger with these agreements, and the many that came before it, is that they’re increasingly being used to undermine publically-beneficial policies.

So your government wants to pass a law banning mining in that protected rainforest? Good luck. You’re violating a corporation’s right to make profit and it can totally sue your government for a billion dollars for trying to stop them.

You think it might be good public policy to limit the kinds of patents big pharma companies can file so they can’t just jack up the price on medicines on patients? Nope! Pharmaceutical corporations can sue for hundreds of millions of dollars for even daring to challenge their bottom line.

And that’s just talkin’ about investor-state dispute resolu…..ZZZzzzzzz~

Yup, boring as hell. And fucking evil.

Okay okay so what’s the deal with TISA? I need to do more digging to figure out exactly what the deal is with this TISA agreement, but so far it looks and smells fucking wretched. The fact that the agreement will be kept secret five years after it enters into force is enough to make me want to smash all the fingers off the Invisible Hand. But this week, Wikileaks revealed only part of the agreement—and it showed that it would undermine nations’ ability to regulate financial services.

Remember that financial crash a few years ago? Where millions of people lost their jobs, their homes, and the people who were and continue to be disproportionately affected are those who were already poor and struggling? Well there were many reasons why it happened by lack of regulation was NOT one of them. One of the major reasons it happened was because previously enacted regulations that we had enough foresight to pass the last time we had a devastating economic crash were struck down in the previous decade. Then banks went full DGAF and invested in shady assets and went off the deep end with wacky loan packages and debt trading. Pretty much everyone who was behind it got off scot-free, while society, and especially the poor, suffered most of all.

Policies that could help us avoid disasters like that might become “inconsistent” with our trade obligations under TISA. But that’s only one piece of it.

From the little we know about TISA, it looks to be in the business of undermining existing or future public services, and force such programs to become open to private contracts so that multinational corporations can take over. Public Services International had this to say about it:

The “disciplines,” or treaty rules, would provide all foreign providers access to domestic markets at “no less favorable” conditions as domestic suppliers and would restrict governments’ ability to regulate, purchase and provide services. This would essentially change the regulation of many public and privatized or commercial services from serving the public interest to serving the profit interests of private, foreign corporations.

What would that mean for public transportation? National parks? Public education? Even public utilities like water and power? Will TISA impact these? Or will it impact only some? Who knows! And it’ll be secret for FIVE YEARS after it goes into effect. Just imagine—we’ll start seeing all of our public services privatized into useless oblivion and we won’t even know why or how it’s being legitimized.

This is why the Evil Trade Triad must be stopped.

We need to stop them for the sake of ourselves,
for the sake of a society that is built on rules that are rational, pragmatic, and designed for the common good,
for the sake of those who will never read or hear about these agreements but will be the most adversely affected,
for the sake of defending any remaining shred of democratic principle that’s left in our world.

/end rant