Putting the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement into context

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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