WikiLeaks published a leaked draft chapter of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement on November 13. The leaded chapter of the propsed “free trade” deal concerned intellectual property rights — and confirms fears its provisions favour big corporations and restrict the ability of governments to regulate corporate activity.
The TPP is being negotiated between the US, Japan, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, Canada, Mexico, and Brunei Darussalam. If final agreement is reached — perhaps as soon as the end of the year — it will become the world's largest free trade agreement, encompassing 40% of world GDP and 25% of world trade.
The negotiations are taking place in secret, a big concern for civil society groups and activists. The only things we know about the content of the TPP has come from leaks.
The public, media and even the legislative bodies of the countries involved have been denied access to the documents. But about 600 advisors — representatives of the world's top corporations — are given privileged access to help the negotiators find a deal that would most benefit big business.
Last month, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade invited journalists to a public briefing on TPP in Sydney. But the invites were almost immediately withdrawn on grounds the briefing was “off the record” and not open to media representatives.
The leaked draft chapter includes the negotiating positions of countries as notes. These reveal the US is seeking to push the other countries to accept intellectual property regulations, many similar to its own, that would enforce longer patents, stricter copyright laws and less internet freedoms.
In many cases, Australia supports the US position. Dr Matthew Rimmer, an expert on intellectual property, told Fairfax that Australia appeared “generally supportive” of the US or otherwise “quite passive” in the negotiations.
The agreement includes moves to ban attempts by people to get around regional prices set by corporations. Companies often use geoblocking technology on products such as software, music, movies and books to prevent people in one region from using the same product that might be sold cheaper in another. For example, cheaper DVDs sold in Asia often do not work on Australian DVD players.
Australia has sided with the US to oppose a proposal that would allow people to get around such technology, such as by modifying a DVD player. This is despite a parliamentary inquiry this year that recommended allowing this.
Companies often set different prices for their products in different regions of the world. Products are often sold in Australia at much higher prices compared to other parts of the world.
You can get around this by buying products at cheaper prices overseas and shipping them to Australia yourself. But the US wants such parallel imports banned.
Eight countries propose exempting internet service providers (ISP) from being held liable for copyright infringements by their customers, but the text shows Australia joins the US in opposing them, despite the High Court saying ISP inaction is not authorisation of copyright infringement.
The agreement could force ISPs to give information about their customers to copyright owners if they just claim an infringement, such as someone downloading a movie.
A significant section of the chapter deals with pharmaceutical patents. Patent-holding companies have exclusive right to manufacture their patented medicines. Provisions in the TPP would delay the production of cheaper generic drugs, which can only be made after the patents have expired.
The US and Australia support allowing companies to get new patents for old medicines by making small changes to them. In this way, patents for a medicine could be renewed indefinitely, known as “evergreening”. The TPP would also prevent makers of generic medicines from using past clinical trials data.
These would raise the costs of many public health systems, including Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which provides subsidised medicines. The impact would be devastating for developing countries, many of whom depend on generic medications for treating AIDS epidemics and other diseases.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said: “In developing countries, where people rarely have health insurance and must pay for medicines out of pocket, high prices keep lifesaving medicines out of reach and are often a matter of life and death.”
A government hoping to lessen the impact of the TPP might find itself unable to do so. In another section of the TPP are provisions for investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) that would allow foreign companies to sue governments for harming their profits, such as by enacting environmental protection or workers' rights laws.
This gives corporations an powerful means to influence national policy.
Most of the negotiations were conducted during the previous Labor government, which had a policy of a blanket refusal to accept any trade deal that includes ISDS provisions. The Coalition's policy is to assess trade deals that have ISDS proposals on case by case basis.
Trade minister Andrew Robb says Australia remains opposed to ISDS in the TPP. However, the US may exempt Australia from the clause.
Australia has already seen the potential of ISDS. Tobacco company Philip Morris has taken Australia to court over its plain packaging laws by using provisions in a trade deal signed with Hong Kong.
ISDS could bolster the coal seam gas mining industry in Australia, which is fighting against broad public opposition.
The Quebec provincial government in Canada placed a moratorium on fracking while it conducted an inquiry into environmental effects, a goal the Australian anti-CSG campaign is aiming for. Lone Pine Resources is suing Quebec under North American Free Trade Agreement ISDS provisions for depriving its rights to profit from fracking.
The next round of negotiations will take place in Singapore in December. Governments and corporations plan to continue colluding in secret, finding ways to give more freedom to transnational corporations at the expense of the freedom, health and security of hundreds of millions of people and the environment.