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March 24, 2017

Trading places

1200px-SOPA_protest_San_Francisco_City_Hall_January_2012.jpgIt's tough when your child looks up at you and hisses words like "defensive, old-fashioned attitudes".

There was such a moment at this week's Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue annual forum, when the whole group of civil society representatives, who until that moment had been disagreeing about how to reinvent trade agreements to work for consumers instead of against them, united in offended solidarity. The target was Stuart Eizenstat, who claims co-foundership of TACD.

The story, as he told it, was that during the Clinton administration he and US Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown created the Transatlantic Business Dialogue to encourage international collaboration between business and governments. TABD's success meant they followed up with two more flavors: labor and consumer. "You have flourished," he said, before going on to scold TACD for not flourishing in quite the way he wanted.

Stuart_eizenstat_8269.JPG"There's no trade agreement you like, there is always a deficiency, there is always too much secrecy," he complained before explaining why all of these ideas were just plain wrong. The now-defunct Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would have been a "great boon" for consumers on both sides of the Atlantic; nothing required the EU to abandon the precautionary principle; duplicative testing could have been eliminated bringing lower costs for cars and pharmaceuticals; even investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) would have improved upon the status quo.

"If you kill TTIP and you fight every effort at mutual recognition, you will wind up with global standards set by the Chinese. Killing TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] has given China a free gift. It was our leverage in Asia to compete with China. Now even Japan is falling into China's orbit with no environment, labor, or safety standards. Is that what we want?"

To a newcomer, this dispute - to roomwide support, Eizenstat's comments were rapidly taken apart by first Public Citizen president Robert Weissman and then by Monique Goyens, director general of the European consumer organization BEUC - is hard to unpick. What are the probabilities: could this guy, whom the whole room opposes, be nonetheless right? And then he suggested sacrificing ISDS to allow negotiators to focus on: "strong IP protection and data flows", which he said were "crucial to the transatlantic digital economy". Firmer footing, at last.

There were good reasons to oppose the copyright protectionism embedded in TTIP and TTP, not least that as elements of previous efforts such as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) they were sufficiently noxious to attract street protests across Europe. (Street protests about copyright!) Data flows, of course, means bypassing those pesky European data protection laws, the target of what may have been the biggest lobbying effort in European legislative history.

The precautionary principle I also knew about: it's the idea embedded in EU legislation that new foods, drugs, and chemicals must prove they are safe before they are allowed to enter the market. In the US, while that applies to medical devices, it does not apply to foods. So genetically modified foods have had easy entrée into the US, but the EU let in silicone breast implants, which the FDA rejected six times (noted Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch). Mutual recognition of testing is certainly more efficient, but it does control bias: comparing the results of EU and US tests is how Volkswagen got caught.

"Consumers like trade, not trade agreements," Monique-Goyens-Lisbon.jpgsaid Goyens. Of course, things are more complicated than that: the same consumer who relishes paying less for goods from Wal-Mart is also the formerly employed worker whose employer moved manufacturing oversees. The multiple life roles everyone plays are not reflected in how we talk about these things.

Eizenstat versus his child is the same dispute that is dividing electorates in so many countries. On US Election Day), I this same attitude was on display at Berlin's Aspen Institute at the event The Liberal Order - Under Siege? (PDF). In DC, Eizenstat accused the group of being "aligned with Trump"; in Berlin the arrogant presumption by some speakers that anyone who was against TTIP must be a Leave voter or Trump supporter was similarly voiced. Yet the two are not connected: many who would support neither still oppose these agreements because they are increasingly being used to implement provisions that bypass democratic accountability. The response when I said this: it's a legitimate issue, but we shouldn't throw out the benefits of economic integration.

The paper TACD has just launched proposes a list of pro-consumer conditions such agreements should meet. Dump ISDS. Bar intellectual property and other types of rent-seeking from being part of the negotiations. Set a minimum floor for consumer protection. Increase transparency during negotiations. Do not try to reach agreement on data flows when the US and EU are at such odds with each other. Do not undermine efforts to regulate the financial sector. Don't use trade agreements to privatize public services. And so on.

This is all good stuff, as is the paper's overarching point: with TPP dead and TTIP and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) "in the freezer", this is an opportunity to rethink how these deals are done. If the public is mistrusting these things so much, maybe the public isn't the problem.

Illustrations: SOPA protests, San Francisco 2012 (Wikimedia; Stuart Eizenstat (Slowking); Monique Goyens (Flickr - Lisbon Council;

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.