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Wikileaks drums up coverage of a secretive trade agreement

Last week, The New York Times got flack for its editorial on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement—a multinational, free-trade agreement that a group of countries including the United States has been negotiating, mostly in secret, with no press access. “A good agreement…will not only help individual countries but set an example for global trade talks,” wrote the editorial board. The piece did not condemn either the agreement or the process under which it was being developed, and critics of the TPP pounced.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit, called the editorial a “disappointing endorsement,” noting it seemed unlikely that anyone at the Times really knew what was in the TPP agreement, or—if the editorial board somehow had a copy—it was “an act of extraordinary cowardice” to keep it secret. BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow wrote that the paper had endorsed the “brutal, secret, internet-destroying corporatist TPP trade-deal.” 

The Times’ editorialists objected: “We never endorsed any text of the agreement, secret or otherwise,” Andrew Rosenthal, of the editorial page, told public editor Margaret Sullivan. “We said they were negotiating this deal, which we think is a good idea (to negotiate a deal) and then said what would constitute a worthwhile agreement.”

If only the paper had waited a few more days to publish. At the very least, the editorial page could have known at least a little more about what was actually in the agreement and had a crack at judging its worth. Yesterday, Wikileaks, Julian Assange’s secret-spewing group, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit media organisation,” released part of the TPP agreement, a negotiating draft, from August. It’s the entirety of the chapter on intellectual property—the part of the agreement that’s most likely to, in Doctorow’s words, destroy the internet.

The chapter itself is a maze-like international document in which sentences contain brackets which contain brackets which contain brackets, all indicating ideas, phrases, and words that various countries, individually or in alliance with each other, support or object to. But according to the independent analyses that have been done of the text, critics of the TPP have not been entirely paranoid. The US, in particular, has been advocating for for longer copyright terms and stronger enforcement—staking out positions that would, on some issues, bring other countries to the level of copyright protection that exists in the US (and that groups like EFF already consider unreasonable). On other issues, the draft proposes pushing beyond the power of any existing laws. 

The United States and its 11 partners have been negotiating this deal since 2010, and the agreement is said to be relatively close to complete. Without new information coming from the negotiating parties, though, there has been relatively little to report on, and internet advocacy groups, which see the agreement as an international attempt to enact some of the same provisions they shouted down during the 2012 fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act, have worried that a finalized agreement will pass without much notice. 

“It’s unfortunate that news outlets are giving little coverage to TPP, when media attention could have a major impact on how the US and the other 11 nations draft digital policy,” wrote EFF’s Maira Sutton. “But public media coverage is precisely the sort of accountability that official secrecy thwarts.”

Will this influx of new information from Wikileaks improve accountability? It did succeed in creating a spray of stories, although most focused, at least initially, on the news of the release rather than the contents of the agreement. (Fair enough. It takes time to chop through a thicket of brackets.) To the extent that a spike in coverage creates public awareness of a particular issue, releasing the draft text should create some additional pressure on officials to communicate about what it is that they’re doing behind closed doors. It gives reporters an excuse to call up the US Office of the Trade Representative and get them to, at the very least, comment on the work they’re doing. 

It also helps internet advocacy groups that the Wikileaks release created another chance to link the TPP to the defeated SOPA. Much like Edward Snowden’s revelations, the text that Wikileaks released did not much surprise anyone who’s been paying close attention to the issue. But there are plenty of people who haven’t been paying attention, and now they might have an inkling that there’s something to notice. TPP critics have got to believe that the Guardian’s Dan Gillmor is right: “The more you know about the odious Trans-Pacific Partnership, the less you’ll like it.”

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications.