USTR "listening session" for public interest groups on TTIP trade negotiations

Today USTR held a one hour "listening session" with several Washington, DC public interest groups. The topic was the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union.

There were more than a dozen and less than twenty attending this invite-only-one-representative-per-NGO meeting. The meeting was Chaired by David Weiner, the Deputy Assistant USTR for Europe, and there were a number of other USTR staffers in the room, including several key players such as George York (Deputy Assistant USTR for IPR and innovation), but not including the most senior USTR officials.

In the one hour, we were asked to discuss both the process and summarize our substantive concerns -- which was a challenge given the diversity of groups attending. There were no business, labor or library groups attending the meeting.

KEI raised the issue of transparency. Some of my talking points: "If you provide copies of the negotiating text to the EU, members of the EU Parliament, and several hundred (non-registered) corporate lobbyists on the USTR advisory boards, what is the rationale for secrecy? Giving the text to 1,000 or so EU and Washington, DC insiders does not mean that the 300 million persons in the USA and the 500 million persons in the EU should be kept in the dark. The TTIP rules will be like super laws that Congress can't amend, and which are difficult to change. If you can't make everything public, you can make some things public."

Among the public interest groups attending the meeting, several were more interested in becoming a cleared advisor to USTR so they could look at text under and NDA, than fighting for broader public access. Of course, everyone in the room was basically a DC insider already, so not everyone here sees the current system as a problem. But several other groups did push for transparency, including Public Citizen (Melinda St. Louis) and the Center for Digital Democracy (Jeff Chester), plus some other TACD member groups.

I spoke for TACD on the IPR issues, speed reading through several issues, from these talking points:

1. The EU will ask for cost sharing for regulatory test data when vertebrae animals are involved (as an alternative to exclusive rights in the test data), because it is unethical to duplicate experiments when the results are already known. KEI wants this extended to tests involving human subjects for new drugs and vaccines, in order to address the standards set out in the Declaration of Helsinki on the Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects.

2. USTR should not push for more and more copyright or patent rights. Both US and EU need to take things down a notch. On the copyright side, the USA has the largest fair use industry in the world, and this has created many jobs and much wealth, but it is being undermined by policies advanced by USTR on behalf of publisher/copyright holder lobbies. The head of the US copyright office is trying to back away from 70 year copyright terms and searching for solution to the orphan works problem. On the patent side, the only way companies can make software or mobile computing devices is if they don't enforce the exclusive rights of patents -- the position recently endorsed by USPTO and DOJ as regards standard relevant patents. The USTR is seeking to expand patentable subject matter, narrowing of exceptions and promoting high damages and expanded liabilities for infringements for both patent and copyright infringement, and taking very harmful positions on the scope and interpretation of the three step test in copyright -- positions at odds with US interests.

3. Don’t cut off mechanisms to curb costs for drugs and vaccines. Prices for drugs for cancer and other illnesses are out of control. Only people working as government trade negotiation's don't see this.

4. Provide a provision in the agreement to expand cross border sharing of works created under exceptions for blind people.

5. Create a chapter in the agreement on the supply of public goods. For example, require European countries to pay for more of the costs of R&D for tropical neglected diseases or development of new antibiotics, basic research on the brain, or other projects, and to provide NIH type access to research obligations.

The other groups raised a range of issues, including several involving the regulation of the environment or food safety. Melinda St. Louis from Public Citizen made a strong intervention on the Investor State Dispute Resolution proposals, which give private corporations and investors the right to sue governments and get damages for regulatory (or IPR) policies they don't like.

When the meeting concluded I suggested USTR consider two other non-IPR issues in the agreement. One was to create a framework for a financial transactions tax, and the other was to address tax avoidance (and minimum taxes) for multinational corporations -- issues for which a US/EU trade agreement provides a unique opportunity to move forward. This was well received in the room. USTR was skeptical, but open to suggestions as to how this might be framed in terms of an agreement that is expected to move, and has to limit its ambitions as regards politically difficult issues.

KEI also asked USTR to provide webcasting and call in options to testify by phone at May 29-30 TTIP hearings. USTR agreed to "consider" this request.