How the TPP could make criminals of us all

by Peter Griffin / 28 July, 2012
Our DVD-viewing rights – and much else besides – could be limited by the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
trans-pacific partnership agreement, dvd zones, copyright

The last time New Zealand’s tech community mobilised to fight a threat to the openness of the internet, it resulted in blacked out websites and Twitter accounts and marches on Parliament. That was in 2009, when a heavy-handed proposed amendment to the Copyright Act aimed at combating internet piracy provoked outrage and spawned an activist campaign that spread virally. Within a month, the legislation had been shelved. The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act finally came into force last year, introducing the same “three strikes” provisions initially floated, but with several of the most disagreeable aspects watered down. It was a partial victory for internet freedom-fighters.

In July, some of the main players in the blackout campaign gathered in a room at Sky City Convention Centre in Auckland in what essentially amounted to a war council. The latest threat is harder to pin down because it comes not in the form of a proposed law change, but in the draft text of a multilateral trade agreement that could have ultimately the same effect. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), being negotiated in secret between the United States and eight other countries including New Zealand, has raised all sorts of suspicions that have been well documented. For the people at the Sky City meeting, the issue closest to their hearts has to do with the contents of the “intellectual property” chapter of the TPP. That section of the document, leaked onto the internet last year, includes proposals designed to enhance protection of intellectual property – provisions that favour the US as the biggest net exporter of IP in the world.

As written, it would extend copyright to “70 years after the author’s death”, up from the 50-year period that currently exists. It also proposes granting authors power to authorise or prohibit reproductions of their work, “including temporary storage in electronic form”. The problem there is that the internet relies on temporary reproduction of electronic files – your internet browser caches countless numbers of them. Other clauses would strengthen patents and give copyright-holders a say over parallel importing of their work. “I’d like to take this down to a personal level,” said Judge David Harvey, rising to his feet amid the web geeks and tech entrepreneurs to address the meeting. The tech-savvy district court judge, who had been hearing the Kim Dotcom extradition case, proceeded to outline how the TPP could make it illegal to unlock a DVD player to enable it to play a US-zoned disc in New Zealand. “Under TPP … you will not be allowed to do that. That will be prohibited. If you do, you will be a criminal,” he said.

David Farrar, the National Party insider and face of Kiwiblog, one of the country’s most popular blogs, has major misgivings. “The US demands for the intellectual property chapter are mainly about putting up barriers to trade, not reducing them,” he writes on Kiwiblog. His advice last week was to co-opt “business friends who can get in the PM’s ear” on the issue. In other words, speak to the Prime Minister in a language he understands. As Farrar pointed out to the left-leaning crowd, improved trade access to the US for New Zealand may require sacrifices. We have a situation, then, where progressive developments such as the arrival of legal webstreaming services Spotify, Rdio and Quickflix could be undone by New Zealand signing up to a trade agreement that restricts what we can do on the net. If there’s a lesson from the blackout campaign it is that people-power can make a difference. But in the TPP, internet advocates could face their biggest battle yet.

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