Why is Fight For The Future Rocking Against the TPP?  

Rock the TPPI will admit it right now. I have not read the full text of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.  And I don’t intend to.  I also do not have even encyclopedia-entry knowledge about all of the other 11 countries involved in the TPP and do not have more than a basic understanding of global trade.  Absent this information, the honest answer is that I have no earthly idea what the full scope of consequences might be of either passing or not passing the TPP.

What I have just said about myself applies to nearly the entire American public. And it very likely applies to the folks at Fight for the Future, who are now promoting a concert event called Rock Against the TPP.  Here’s their description of the largest international trade deal in history:

“…an anti-democratic deal between 12 countries that was negotiated in complete secrecy by government officials and hundreds of corporate lobbyists. If it becomes law, the TPP would be the largest deal of its kind in history, and it poses a grave threat to good-paying jobs, internet freedom, the environment, access to medicine, food safety, and the future of freedom of expression.”

I have written previously about the false claim that TPP can have an ill-effect on free speech and that the “secrecy” thing is blown out of proportion.  (As indicated above, the full text has been freely available since early in the year, but nobody is going to read it.)

The first criticism I have about FFTF’s declaration is that this organization is not functionally concerned with good paying jobs, the environment, access to medicine, or food safety.  Individuals within the group may personally care about these things and have certain related knowledge, but nobody who works there is an international policy expert in these areas; and addressing these issues is not part of the mission of the organization.  Fight for the Future is, in principle, a “digital rights” group—concerned with “internet freedom,” a concept that is itself a little vague for my tastes, but that’s another conversation.

“Act Now! Or Things Might Stay Very Much the Same!

That doesn’t exactly stir one to action, but it’s an honest distillation of “digital rights” groups’ complaints about the TPP with regard to “internet freedom” and free speech. This is because the part of the treaty they see as a threat are the IP provisions, which do not actually have any effect on the status of free speech online for the trading partners.

And even confined to its wheelhouse, Fight for the Future’s concern for “internet freedom” in the context of the TPP typically glosses over the complexity of interrelated issues, raising this one paradox I can’t help but repeat:  You cannot have internet freedom without global trade because you cannot have devices that connect you to the internet without global trade.  Ain’t that a bitch?

I mean I hate to be a buzzkill, but there’s a lot of environmental hazard and unsafe, unfair labor involved with producing the computers and smart phones and tablets FFTF is using to rally people to Rock Against the TPP.  So, the hard question is this:   Can we privileged Americans say with confidence that this trade deal only exacerbates these problems rather than makes progress toward improvements for workers and environmental policies in partner nations? I can’t.  Can you?  And, without this level of understanding, it seems cynically irresponsible to get people into a lather about their right of free speech—a right that is not threatened at all—while potentially denying a step forward for someone halfway around the world, who lives in pretty deplorable conditions.

Still, the economic and environmental concerns are not dismissible.  Here’s a quote cited by the organization Citizens Trade, which is linked to by FFTF:

CWA president Chris Shelton: “Even a cursory review demonstrates how this trade deal fails working families. It forces U.S. workers to compete with the 65-cent an hour wages of Vietnamese workers and the slave labor employed in Malaysia. It allows multinational corporations to challenge environmental, financial, consumer and other regulations through international tribunals – and outside the court systems of member countries. It pays lip service to addressing real concerns about currency manipulation that costs American jobs and leads to more jobs being sent offshore. And it allies the U.S. with countries that abuse their own citizens, including Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia.”

I don’t want to support any of that.  Of course there’s a lot in that statement begging further research, but on the last point, for example, about allying with countries that abuse their citizens, here’s some sample text from the TPP:

Article 19.3: Labour Rights

1. Each Party shall adopt and maintain in its statutes and regulations, and practices thereunder, the following rights as stated in the ILO Declaration 3, 4:

(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;

(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;

(c) the effective abolition of child labour and, for the purposes of this Agreement, a prohibition on the worst forms of child labour; and

(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

So, if ratifying this trade agreement could reverse precedent disenfranchisement of minority workers in Malaysia, I don’t necessarily want to rock against it either.  So, which do we believe?  More to the point, how can we know without thoroughly digging into the laws, economics, and conditions of people in Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, etc.?  Fight for the Future seems to trade on a very American-centric notion that an “open internet” is all that’s needed for the rest of the world to become more democratic and socially just.

The labor-related critics cited by Citizens Trade—Steelworkers, Machinists, CWA, and the Teamsters—have an immediate, American-jobs interest in fighting against free trade. This is a valid concern to say the least, but it also makes these parties rather strange bedfellows with an organization like Fight for the Future, whose anti-copyright agenda is not exactly supportive of domestic labor. Teamsters, for example, do a lot of work for the motion picture industry. And FFTF’s criticism, based solely on the premise that copyright enforcement is in conflict with free speech, is both unsound and wants to ignore the adverse effects of criminal-enterprise infringement of works like motion pictures.

Although certain pundits like to point to the total revenues of the American film industry as “proof” that large-scale piracy does no harm, the evidence is clear that investment in middle-market production is wavering as a direct result of piracy’s eroding margins for these products.*  This can lead to fewer total projects being made with full budgets and union crews, which can lead to fewer teamsters being hired to support film and television production.  Likewise, many members of the CWA have a direct interest in protecting copyrights around the world, so how is FFTF’s anti-IP agenda not a threat to those jobs in addition to any concerns regarding other aspects of the TPP?

In the end, I think it’s very tough to say whether or not we could, or would even want to, put the global-trade genie back in the bottle.  What is not hard to say is that Fight for the Future’s gasping over the prospect that TPP would unify copyright terms among the partner nations and promote measures for enforcement is a naive, anti-progressive stance that ignores the complexities of the real world. Former Canadian diplomat Hugh Stephens describes a hypothetical—though not impossible—scenario in which Taiwan is invited to join the TPP, which would diversify its economic relationships, making it less dependent on China.  Meanwhile, what do “digital rights” activists think is more likely to motivate a nation like China to migrate toward a more open society with an uncensored internet—rock concerts or global trade?

With regard to American jobs, there’s no getting past the fact that certain sectors have suffered from free trade deals. In response, I’m with those who say there are jobs to be had by investing in domestic infrastructure; it’s long overdue for renovation and cannot be outsourced.  Maybe somebody should rock that.


*Although there is new investment in middle-market works predicated on Netflix-like models, it is too soon to know how this market will evolve to remain sustainable.  It is also equally vulnerable to piracy.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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