Building Effective Alliances around the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

January 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

My talk on building activism around the TPP at LinuxConf 2013 is now online – thanks to the AV team for all of their hard work, and for catching me to re-record the talk when they discovered the first recording had gone awry. You can listen to the full talk here [mp4 on the linux site] [or watch on YouTube], and a truncated version of the first version of the talk I gave, mostly notable for catching some good discussion in the questions (which begin a few minutes in – look for the slide that just has my name and contacts on it), here [mp4].

Abstract: This presentation suggests a variety of strategies and tactics that the Linux community might adopt when acting on political issues, with the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) being of particular concern at the moment. The TPPA is a multinational free trade agreement (FTA), and will probably build on and extend the damaging provisions imposed by the 2004 Australia-US FTA. The extent of damage likely to be done by the TPPA is not yet known, as only draft copies have been leaked and the negotiations remain secret.

Currently, free and open source communities often find ways deal with problematic laws, such as the copyright extensions and restrictions on circumventing technological restrictions brought in by the 2004 Australia-US FTA, with clever hacks of the legal system (such as copyleft and creative commons licenses); workarounds which meet the letter of the law (such as providing Linux installations without potentially-illegal codecs); or ignoring laws which seem unlikely to be enforced. However, all of these strategies have problems. Hacks can only go so far; relying on a lack of enforcement is risky; and workarounds make free and open source software less accessible for novice users and others who would prefer software that works out of the box. Part of the work of promoting free and open source software must therefore involve activism that is directly aimed at the TPPA and other FTAs.

Important activism did take place around the 2004 Australia-US FTA, including work within Linux Australia led by Rusty Russell, Kimberlee Weatherall and others. Much of this took a similar form to activism currently happening around the TPPA: the focus has been on lobbying, letter-writing, and media relations. Coalition-building and other activism around the TPPA, as with the 2004 FTA, has predominantly taken place within tech communities. However, while this work has been valuable, it may be useful to explore ways to build alliances with other communities and to draw on a broader range of activist tactics. This discussion will draw on some of the lessons learned from relatively successful attempts to oppose FTAs in the past, including protests in the late 1990s around the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and World Trade Organization negotiations, as well more recent FTAs such as those between the US and Malaysia and the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposed by the US. Drawing on this work, I will suggest tactics for effective action, including use of a spectrum of allies model, organizational models which facilitate tiered levels of participation, and creative use of the Overton window. I will also outline some of the key groups opposing the TPPA outside of the tech community in both Australia and the US.

Many thanks go to Rusty Russell, Brendan Molloy, and Nathalie Latter for their help preparing the talk.

Upcoming presentations: Building Effective Alliances around the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

September 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Early next year I’ll be discussing strategies for opposing the TPPA at Linux Conference Australia, in Perth:

This presentation suggests a variety of strategies and tactics that the Linux community might adopt when acting on political issues, with the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) being of particular concern at the moment. The TPPA is a multinational free trade agreement (FTA), and will probably build on and extend the damaging provisions imposed by the 2004 Australia-US FTA. The extent of damage likely to be done by the TPPA is not yet known, as only draft copies have been leaked and the negotiations remain secret.

Currently, free and open source communities often find ways deal with problematic laws, such as the copyright extensions and restrictions on circumventing technological restrictions brought in by the 2004 Australia-US FTA, with clever hacks of the legal system (such as copyleft and creative commons licenses); workarounds which meet the letter of the law (such as providing Linux installations without potentially-illegal codecs); or ignoring laws which seem unlikely to be enforced. However, all of these strategies have problems. Hacks can only go so far; relying on a lack of enforcement is risky; and workarounds make free and open source software less accessible for novice users and others who would prefer software that works out of the box. Part of the work of promoting free and open source software must therefore involve activism that is directly aimed at the TPPA and other FTAs.

Important activism did take place around the 2004 Australia-US FTA, including work within Linux Australia led by Rusty Russell, Kimberlee Weatherall and others. Much of this took a similar form to activism currently happening around the TPPA: the focus has been on lobbying, letter-writing, and media relations. Coalition-building and other activism around the TPPA, as with the 2004 FTA, has predominantly taken place within tech communities. However, while this work has been valuable, it may be useful to explore ways to build alliances with other communities and to draw on a broader range of activist tactics. This discussion will draw on some of the lessons learned from relatively successful attempts to oppose FTAs in the past, including protests in the late 1990s around the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and World Trade Organization negotiations, as well more recent FTAs such as those between the US and Malaysia and the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposed by the US. Drawing on this work, I will suggest tactics for effective action, including use of a spectrum of allies model, organizational models which facilitate tiered levels of participation, and creative use of the Overton window. I will also outline some of the key groups opposing the TPPA outside of the tech community in both Australia and the US.

I really enjoyed last year’s LCA, including the commitment by the conference organisers to creating a safe and inclusive space, and it looks like there are some great speakers this year (even from my non-tech perspective). The miniconfs also look well worth checking out.

Putting the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement into context

March 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s been a lot of excitement among digital liberties types about the TPPA recently, as the US IP proposals were leaked last week. There’s an excellent analysis by Kim Weatherall over at LawFont, more analysis over at techdirt, and some opposition starting up by groups like the Pirate Party and EFA. Most of these activists have raised some great points – I particularly recommend Kim Weatherall’s article, which has identified some areas that might be particularly problematic, especially relating to copyright extensions and anti-circumvention provisions.

However, what I find strange about a lot of this, though, is the lack of connection with other anti-trade agreement activism. Left-wing activists have been critiquing “free trade” agreements for decades: the protests in Seattle in 1999 were some of the most visible examples of this in the global North, but they certainly haven’t been the only protests. When it comes to the TPPA, there are a number of groups continuing on from previous rounds of global justice activism, including TPPWatch (NZ) and AFTINET (AU). I’m not particularly well-linked to this activist scene, so I’m sure there are also plenty of less-visible groups.

There are a few reasons why digital liberties activists might not be connecting up with other strands of global justice activism, as I argued in my PhD. These include:

  • Many (but not all!) digital liberties activists come from “geeky” backgrounds – they know a lot about copyright, or software, but not necessarily a lot about non-institutional politics or protest movements.
  • Many digital liberties activists seem to want to avoid any association with left-wing politics, and often identify as libertarian, or as “apolitical” (despite the fact that they’re involved in intensely political projects).
  • A significant proportion of digital liberties activism comes from a pro-capitalist perspective and is based on the assumption that we need to expand the economy and encourage more “innovation”. See, for example, techdirt‘s complaints that the TPPA is “against the basic principles of the free market and consumer rights”. This doesn’t tend to mesh well with anarchist/socialist perspectives, although there are some overlaps.
  • As I’m learning more about digital liberties groups, it’s becoming clearer to me that many of those involved want to be identified as “serious” and capable of consultation. In fact, I suspect that many of them would resist the “activist” label, and would prefer to stick to formal lobbying activity, trying for inclusion in decision-making bodies.

However, while I can see the reasons that digital liberties activists might not want to link up with global justice activism against “free trade” agreements, I do think there are important arguments that they should at least consider:

  • There’s no point reinventing the wheel. Activists around the world have been involved in building critiques the processes used to create free trade agreements, bringing attention to the fact that these processes are undemocratic and opaque. Digital liberties activists might not fully agree with the critiques put forward by global justice activists, but they can draw on them.
  • Building coalitions can be helpful, especially if they bring together a range of demographics. Demonstrating that proposed agreements are likely to have effects on people beyond a relatively small band of “knowledge workers” is a good way to put pressure on governments.
  • If you want to get bring attention to intellectual property issues, you need to convince people that these issues will have some effect on their lives. Analysing them within the broader context of other provisions of free trade agreements is one way to do this.

I’ve argued elsewhere that global justice activists should be paying attention to digital liberties. I think it’s also important that digital liberties activists pay attention to what global justice activists are doing.

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