HJC is Right to Want Internet Safe Harbors Out of USMCA

Remember the Trans Pacific Partnership?  The twelve-nation trade agreement that became an eleven-nation trade agreement when the U.S. pulled out?   As a general opinion, I will propose that when both a Bernie Sanders and a Donald Trump want to thrash a Fair Trade Agreement (FTA), it’s a pretty good indication that diametrically opposing ideologies have come to the same naïve conclusion.  Whether one’s anti-globalism is steeped in anti-corporatism or ultra-nationalism matters very little when the self-defeating result is not the abandonment of the world’s largest trade deal, but a decision that the United States will not have a seat at the table.  

But the reason I’m trotting out that diplomatic fiasco in this post is to remind readers why “digital rights” groups like the EFF, PublicKnowledge, ReCreate Coalition, et al campaigned so energetically against the TPP:  because they said it would “entrench” the status quo of copyright law, particularly the duration of copyright terms.  “One of the defining battles in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations,” began a typical EFF blog post in 2017,  “is whether its signatory countries will standardize copyright terms lengths to a minimum term of the life of the author plus 70 years.” While this post presents the urgency of six new countries adding 20 years to their copyright terms, I do not believe the duration of copyright in Brunei was the focus of the organization’s agenda.

Regardless of how one feels about term length, it was profoundly disingenuous to imply in that post, and others, that the USTR was working at the behest of major rightsholders to entrench the life-plus-70-year standard through an FTA. Further, in my view, this post was written to suggest that, if the U.S. did not ratify TPP, we just might to roll back our terms to life-plus-50 years. But that regime was already a global standard when the U.S. joined the Berne Treaty a century after it was first created; and the increase from 50 years to 70 in 1996 was the result of the U.S. matching its terms to those adopted by the new European Union.  So, there was never any logic to the implication that by withdrawing from the Pacific trade deal, this would have loosened the bolts on U.S. copyright policies, which are based largely on the history of Euro/American trade in copyrightable works.

With that preamble in mind, be prepared for much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the “digital rights” groups if the U.S. Trade Representative concedes to a request by the House Judiciary Committee to remove language from the USMCA (new NAFTA) mirroring the “safe harbor” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  

Also referred to as Section 512, these are the provisions under which internet service providers (ISPs) are held immune from liability for hosting copyright infringing material that is uploaded by users; and safe harbor language has been echoed in FTAs since passage of the DMCA in 1998.  Why the change in doctrine?  In its September 17 letter to the USTR, the Committee stated …

“The U.S. Copyright Office is expected to produce a report on Section 512 around the end of this year, the result of a multi-year process that started in 2015.  Moreover, the European Union has recently issued a copyright directive that includes reforms to its analogous safe harbor for online platforms, which may have an impact on the U.S. domestic policy debate.  Without taking a position on that debate in this letter, we find it problematic for the United States to export language mirroring this provision while such serious policy discussions are ongoing.”  

Quite simply, the DMCA has been under review for several years because it is not exactly working as intended.  In fact, neither of the two internet liability shields—neither Section 512 nor Section 230—has resulted in platform operators taking adequate voluntary action to mitigate harm on their platforms.  To the contrary, absolute immunity for web platforms fostered a culture of smug, self-important rationales for irresponsibility.  

Until major Silicon Valley executives had to start answering questions about data breaches and trust violations, they were the self-proclaimed  “fast movers and thing breakers,” insisting that if we all want progress (see innovation), we gotta let them break a few eggs, right?  Except those eggs were privacy; civil liberties; personal safety; decency; the rights of authors and inventors to protect the fruits of their labor; other labor rights while we’re at it; and the foundations of democracy itself.  Small price to pay for Facebook and YouTube, I guess.

In contrast to the ginned-up fears of “entrenching” century-old copyright regimes in trade agreements, the “digital rights” groups will no-doubt recommend entrenching law through FTAs with a much shorter and dodgier pedigree.  It took less than 20 years after passage of the DMCA to recognize that ISPs will use their liability shields to avoid taking adequate voluntary measures to mitigate harmful or illegal conduct on their platforms.

The logical conclusion many constituencies are now coming to with regard to internet service providers—and this is hardly a revelation—is that tech corporations, like any other, will avoid incurring costs, either direct or opportunity, unless the potential liability will be even more expensive.  The House Judiciary Committee is right to put the brakes on safe harbor provisions in FTAs in order avoid calcifying demonstrably flawed policy.  

© 2019, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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