Under activist opposition, Congress has introduced a “fast track” bill to make it far easier for the U.S. to agree to trade deals that have been kept largely hidden from the public.
If the legislation passes, it would make it far more likely for the U.S. to sign off on the controversial and secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement between 12 countries, which Internet freedom advocates call a “global threat to the Internet.”
Though partial drafts of the TPP keep finding their way to WikiLeaks, the text as a whole still has not been released to the public, despite the fact that corporate representatives are allowed to lobby TPP negotiators.
Based on leaked draft chapters of TPP, the agreement could institute copyright-infringement policies that may allow countries to censor content or restrict people from using the Internet altogether. Environmental groups, labor unions, and healthcare advocates have also rallied against the TPP for its potential effects on worker and environmental protections, wages, and patents involving pharmaceuticals.
More formally known as trade promotion authority, ‘fast track’ seems a counterintuitive goal for Congress in a sense: It would dampen its own power. If the fast track bill passes, Congress won’t be able to vote on individual parts of any trade deal—including, notably, the TPP—but instead will have to either accept or reject it wholesale. Given how unrealistic it would be to get both houses of Congress to agree on every element of a trade deal that’s already been tightly negotiated and agreed upon by a dozen nations, fast-tracking TPP’s passage is essentially necessary for the U.S. to agree to the trade deal.
The bill comes from Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“It’s a huge disappointment,” Maira Sutton, Global Policy Analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Daily Dot. “We thought that Wyden was going to do much more to at least enact more safeguards for users.”
Fast track itself may be an inevitability if the U.S. is going to sign any new trade deals at all—but that doesn’t mean that the details of this bill were set in stone.
“The big problem, in my view, is the last few times we’ve introduced fast track it’s between coupled with an expected culture of secrecy at the [Office of the] U.S. Trade Representative,” said Margot Kaminski, an assistant professor of law at Ohio State University and a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.
Wyden’s fast-track bill does include a kind of transparency provision, in that it would require the USTR website to publish the text of the TPP before the president can sign it. But that’s too little, too late, Sutton said: By that point, the text is already immutable.