October 14, 2014 | Ed Johnson-Williams

TTIP's threat to our privacy and culture

TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is a trade agreement currently being negotiated behind closed doors between the United States and the European Union. The agreement is supposed to "increase trade and investment" but there are significant concerns around its potential negative impact on democracy, the rule of law, innovation, culture and privacy.

Many activists are concerned that TTIP will lower regulations that protect us - for example, environmental and food safety laws. TTIP could also lead to the opening up of public services, like those provided by NHS, to US companies - who would be able to sue the UK government if they believe legislation would lead to a reduction in their profits.

NoTTIP Demonstration - Open Rights Group placards

TTIP - pronounced "tee-tip" - is just one of many international trade agreements. Very few of them are well-known and the acronyms for them can get a little bewildering. One thing that is common to many of the recent agreements is Europe and the USA pushing for measures that would jeapordise our digital rights. We need to be vigilant against the threat that TTIP poses for our privacy and culture.

A (relatively) well-known trade agreement is ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). The EU, the USA and nine other countries negotiated ACTA between 2007 and 2010. ACTA made Internet providers legally responsible for copyright infringement on their network. To determine whether their users were infringing copyright, providers would have been strongly incentivised to carry out deep, intrusive surveillance on all of our Internet usage, regardless of whether we had actually infringed anyone's copyright. This would have been an enormous invasion of our privacy. Thanks to huge public protests across Europe, the European Parliament rejected ACTA in 2012 with a 92% majority.

Another trade agreeement that is currently being negotiated is the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). The USA is working on the TPP with twelve countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Leaks of the intellectual property (IP) chapter show that the USA is pushing for very restrictive measures on IP that would invade privacy and impact upon freedom of expression, beyond even those in ACTA.

The EU and Canada have just finished negotiating CETA - pronounced "see-tuh" - (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement). The 2009 leak of a draft IP chapter of CETA revealed extensive European demands for Internet provider liability, strict rules on technical restrictions on media that we buy and longer copyright terms. Europe wanted a more repressive IP framework that would have put the interests of major content owners above the need for innovation, culture and privacy.

There is good news though. Those measures have been dropped in the final CETA text. As Canadian academic Michael Geist points out, one of the likely reasons for this is that Canadian negotiators wanted to keep the relatively consumer-friendly copyright reforms that Canada introduced in 2012. TTIP negotiations will not have this moderating force with regards to the IP provisions.

Discussions on IP in TTIP are at a relatively early stage and the relevant chapter has not been leaked. There are, however, reports of USA negotiators asking for measures in TTIP to encourage Internet firms to bypass the rule of law and voluntarily police IP themselves "in good faith". This could mean (mainly American) companies voluntarily removing content, blocking websites, demoting search results or witholding payments without the normal checks required by legal processes. US law being implemented on a global scale by US companies is not something we should accept.

The USA and Europe have a history of proposing extremely restrictive IP measures. We must stop TTIP from invading our privacy and inhibiting our culture and freedom of expression. As the defeat of ACTA shows, we can defeat undemocratic trade deals. We will be watching the TTIP negotiations closely to make sure our fundamental rights are not threatened.