CI’s Jeremy Malcolm looks at how the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dismantling a slew of consumer rights from intellectual property laws to food labelling to labour standards.
But rather than being a race to the top, sometimes globalisation can be a race to the bottom, in which national laws to protect the public interest are sacrificed on the altar of free trade.
An example of this is found in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an intergovernmental agreement currently under negotiation that threatens to reduce hard-won health, privacy, consumer protection, environmental and labour standards in 11 negotiating countries around the Asia Pacific region.
Here are just some of the areas of the TPP text that are of concern to consumers:
Food and labelling
The existing trade disciplines of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) already limit national and consumer sovereignty when it comes to food. For example, under WTO rules, the European communities were punished for prohibiting imports of beef from cows laced with hormones, because the health risks of the use of artificial hormones on cattle had not been scientifically established.
As a result, Europe was ordered to compensate the United States for the lost imports of hormone-laced beef that European consumers didn't want! Under the TPP, American industry is asking for even tougher powers to limit other countries from regulating products such as genetically-modified food, pesticides and additives.
Perhaps the most controversial chapter of the TPP, the intellectual property chapter, would also elevate intellectual property protection and enforcement standards above the already-high levels set by the WTO, to the detriment of consumers.
For example, many countries will be required to extend their length of copyright protection by 20 or more years, resulting in works from early last century being locked out of the public domain for decades. Parallel importation will also be restricted, allowing global firms to profiteer.
An Australian parliamentary study shows that such restrictions increase the cost of music downloads in that country by more than 50% compared to the USA.
The right to bypass digital locks in order to exercise fair dealings with copyright works will also be curtailed, and both civil and criminal penalties for copyright infringements will almost certainly balloon.
Investor-state dispute settlement
Under investor-state dispute settlement rules proposed for the TPP, big business can sue governments in an international commercial tribunal, for introducing new laws - such as consumer protection laws - that damage their businesses.
For example, the tobacco giant Philip Morris is currently suing Australia under a similar free trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong, over Australia's introduction of a law requiring plain packaging of cigarettes.
Even though Australia's High Court already rejected the Philip Morris claim, the company is still pursuing its case in the international tribunal. Unsurprisingly, Australia has rejected an ‘investor-state disputes settlement provision’ for the TPP - but the USA is still insisting upon it.
The TPP is proposing to adopt and strengthen the problematic APEC cross-border privacy rules, which were developed without adequate input from consumer or privacy groups. These rules provide a streamlined process for the exchange of consumers' private information across borders, possibly into countries where privacy protection is significantly more lax.
As part of this, TPP is proposing to outlaw government policies that require consumers' information to be physically hosted on local servers. The intent is to allow web companies from the United States to host such private data, even though US law notoriously allows warrantless wiretapping and surveillance of its citizens.
This unnerving practice will now extend across the region if this TPP proposal makes it through.
Consumer groups shut out
There are probably many other areas of the text that are of concern to consumers too. But we can only say "probably", because the text has not been released. We only know what we do about the agreement because two of its 20 chapters have been leaked, and from public statements by negotiators and lobbyists.
In particular, the US government has claimed that the "Competition" and "E-Commerce" chapters both include text on consumer protection, and there also exists a chapter on "Financial services" that is doubtless of relevance to consumers. Yet CI, and all other consumer organisations, have been denied access to these texts, whilst cleared corporate lobbyists have been allowed to see them.
CI attended the most recent meeting of the TPP negotiators in Virginia, USA, earlier this month with our member ODECU from Chile, where we were allowed a token 10-minute presentation slot, and a table from which to distribute publications.
Whilst this is a pitiful excuse for public engagement, the meetings have provided a useful mobilisation point for civil society, and are an occasion for well-connected NGOs to arrange informal private meetings with negotiators. (CI attended such a meeting in Virginia.)
The next TPP negotiation meeting will be taking place in New Zealand from 3 to 12 December 2012, and we are again inviting interested CI members to participate, with coaching and support from CI.
If you are interested in hearing more, and are from Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States or Vietnam, contact me or Farooq Ahmed Jam from CI's Office for Asia Pacific and the Middle East.
We will provide you with a detailed briefing document that we have prepared, and put you in touch with your country's negotiators.
Even if you can't attend the next negotiating session, there are still many ways in which you can have an impact, such as talking with your negotiators, and linking up with other NGOs in your country who are already engaged in TPP advocacy.
With the agreement slated for completion in 2013, now is the time for CI members from the Asia-Pacific region to defend themselves against the TPP's many threats to consumers.