USTR Keeps Making ITU Look Good On Transparency, Which Is Bad For Everyone.
USTR Keeps Making ITU Look Good On Transparency, Which Is Bad For Everyone.
USTR Keeps Making ITU Look Good On Transparency, Which Is Bad For Everyone.

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    Pointing out that the United States Trade Representative (USTR) does not
    understand the concept of “transparency” hardly qualifies as news. It’s kinda
    like “Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Places Last In Pulled Pork Bar-B-Q Contest.” But every now
    and then, USTR’s generalized failure to understand why increasing public
    participation, sharing more information with the public, and generally bringing
    the standard of transparency up to what we would actually consider vaguely
    transparent actually threatens U.S. interests in other areas.

    Case in point, the International Telecom
    (ITU) meeting in Dubai for the World
    Conference on International Telecommunications
    (WCIT) this December. 
    I’ve written before on why I worry a number of the proposals at made by various
    repressive regimes at WCIT
    may have long-term consequences for freedom of expression online

    Many global civil society organizations, as well as many countries committed to
    freedom of expression and fundamental human rights, oppose these efforts to
    leverage WCIT for such ends. At the same time, however, many of these countries
    and organizations have long
    standing serious concerns around Internet governance
    . In particular, they
    resent what they see as the dominance of U.S. government and U.S. corporate
    interests in supposedly neutral “multistakeholder” forums like the Internet
    Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
    (ICANN). ICANN is the current
    home for much of what people mean by “internet
    .” This makes expanding ITU jurisdiction to include Internet
    issues attractive to some of these countries and organizations, despite the
    danger to free expression, as one of the few possible counterweights to the

    Persuading enough of these countries and other stakeholders that the
    downside of expanding ITU authority outweighs the potential benefit is
    therefore the chief challenge for the U.S. delegation. Unfortunately, the
    continued conduct of USTR in reenforcing the view that the U.S. Government is
    the tool of industry by doing things like pushing ACTA (which
    continues to be held
    up in Europe
    and elsewhere as a symbol of the U.S. shilling for Hollywood
    at the expense of free expression), and maintaining a cloud of secrecy around
    the Trans-Pacific
    (TPP) negotiations, makes this much harder. While we are kind
    of stuck with ACTA, the USTR can do a heck of a lot more around transparency in
    TPP. Given that the ITU has made a number of conciliatory gestures to civil
    society on the transparency front in the last few weeks, It would be really
    helpful if USTR would at least stop pissing
    on its critics
    and generally making
    ITU look good

    I cheerfully acknowledge that every now and again,
    the folks at USTR that recognize the importance of transparency and legitimacy try
    to do something about this
    , but they are apparently outweighed by the folks
    who think none of this transparency stuff matters or seem incapable of hearing
    that there might be problems. By contrast, ITU has engaged in an active charm
    offensive to woo civil society and calm fears that the WCIT is a conspiracy to
    “take over the Internet

    Compare ITU and USTR over the last few months on
    transparency, and you will see what I mean. In May a number of civil society
    organizations, including Public Knowledge, signed on to a letter from the Center
    for Democracy and Technology
    that pointed out the lack of transparency around
    WCIT and the lack of opportunities for civil society to engage either at WCIT
    or in the ITU process generally. The ITU responded by acknowledging the
    and by releasing a number of documents providing some basic background briefings on areas of discussion.

    This looks like pretty weak tea for transparency,
    until you compare it to the USTR. We have pressed USTR to do at least this
    much for proposals in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. USTR [holds
    another round of regional negotiations in San Diego this week], but – following
    its usual custom – has explained that making any summary of any discussions or
    developments is simply impossible. Instead, USTR’s great leap forward was
    to responded to PK’s criticism of the ‘science fair’ type format for
    engagement with delegates in Dallas
    where every org can register a table and include for the San Diego round the opportunity to make presentations to the
    . (Both of these, I should point out, are not part of the official
    negotiation agenda but are extra-curricular activities should the delegates
    have time and chose to take advantage of the chance to engage groups one on

    Lest one think it is only civil society
    organizations frustrated with this lack of transparency and engagement, I point
    out that over 130 members of the House of Representatives, as well as a
    number of  Senators
    , have written to US
    Trade Representative Ron Kirk to demand greater transparency around the TPP
    process. USTR also denied the request of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who
    actually represents a district in San Diego where the current TPP round is
    taking place, to attend the negotiations as an observer. This follows on
    Representative Kirk’s rather intemperate response to a letter from 30
    Academics criticizing TPP’s lack of transparency before the Dallas round.

    So while ITU remains no great shakes on the transparency front, it at least
    has acted all conciliatory and made some gestures in the right direction. By
    contrast, as I have noted before, USTR’s chief accomplishment in
    the last few months has been the global branding of ACTA and the US generally
    as  (a) bullies who use our global market power to bully other nations
    into neo-imperialist treaties negotiated in secret; who are (b) so utterly
    clueless that we continue to think everything is just utterly hunky-dory
    despite riots in Europe and rejections of the treaty by various governments and
    government organizations.

     Just to be clear: this global branding of the U.S. by USTR as incapable
    of even basic transparency or engagement with civil society is NOT HELPFUL!!!

    Especially when it comes to persuading global civil society orgs and ITU member
    states that the U.S. cares Internet freedom and human rights while other
    countries trying to leverage the ITU and WCIT don’t. USTR’s persistence in
    treating transparency at TPP (and in other negotiations) as a box to be
    checked, the inclusion of industry trade organizations in “civil society”
    forums while simultaneously excluding non-commercial civil society
    organizations from “industry forums,” and otherwise demonstrating contempt for
    the whole concept of public accountability in trade negotiations is going to
    seriously bite the U.S. negotiators’ rear-ends in Dubai. The Hon. Ron Kirk’s “Shut
    Your Pie-Hole Transparency Hippies” letter
    is going to be exhibit one for
    Russia, the Arab block and anyone else trying to leverage WCIT on “why the U.S.
    is not your friend and all this stuff about Internet freedom is so much chin

    Now I know there are folks at USTR, and elsewhere in the U.S. government who
    understand about the importance of transparency. I get that they are trying to
    be responsive to criticism to the extent they can. For example, as noted above,
    in response to our criticism about the stakeholder science fair at Dallas, USTR
    will also allow stakeholders (which includes industry as well as civil society)
    to sign up to do longer presentations. But I also know that there are far too
    many folks at USTR – particularly at the highest level – who read what I just
    wrote and translate in their brain to “fubba wubba fubba wubba USTR totally
    rocks on transparency, everyone else shut your pie-hole.”

    So here is the bottom line. Right now, the USTR brand – and by
    extension the U.S. trade negotiations generally – can be summed up as follows:
    “Transparency UR Doin’ It Wrong” followed closely by “ACTA – NO WANT!!!”
      USTR’s reputation on transparency is so bad it makes ITU’s pathetic
    little gesture toward transparency look good. In the few short months between
    now and WCIT in Dubai, the U.S. really needs to turn its branding around.
    Otherwise, no matter how lame ITU’s transparency actually is in practice, the
    U.S. and its allies will have a very difficult time calling them on it.