Wednesday, 04 March 2015 13:27

TPPA, data retention and copyright laws: the unholy trinity has landed Featured

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COMMENT In what is a perfectly natural confluence, the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the data retention proposals and the copyright law changes are coming together to take effect around the same time. Nothing surprising here.

What is surprising, though, is the mainstream media's inability to add one and one and realise that it makes two. Right from the start, I have pointed out the connections among this unholy trinity and why; it seems to be a no-brainer to me, yet people, it appears, are yet to make the connection.

The TPPA, to give it its rightful name, is styled as a free trade treaty between 12 nations, including Australia. It is driven by the United States and, if concluded, would involve nearly 40% of global trade. Negotiations have been going on for nearly five years. There is talk that it will be signed in Hawaii next month.

In trade deals between countries, there is always some give and take. There is more take by the bigger country, less by the smaller, less powerful one. The case of the US-Australia free trade treaty is a classic example. This treaty was initiated by John Howard in the mistaken belief that his personal relationship with George W. Bush would enable Australia to benefit to some extent.

Towards the end of the negotiations, Howard, at the receiving end most of the time, pleaded with the US for at least one sweetener – an additional 100,000 tonnes of beef exports. But would any US president anger the country's powerful agricultural lobby? Dubya said no.

As to who benefits, the evidence is clear. In the 2004-05 financial year, before the treaty took effect, US exports to Australia were $21.4 billion while Australian exports to the US were $9.2 billion. In the 2010-2011 financial year, the US exported $26 billion worth of products to Australia. The reverse flow was $9 billion. Howard's myopia is clearly revealed.

There are several aspects of the TPPA which will serve Australia badly. For one, with big US media companies pushing for extended copyright terms — from 50 to 70 years — and enhanced laws to track down those who download digital media without permission, Australian consumers will be hit badly. The practice of harassing individuals, so common in the US, will come to Australia with a vengeance and the data retention scheme will provide the evidence needed to carry this through.

Then there is the push for ever-greening of patents. Multinational pharmaceutical companies want longer terms for patents so that generic drugs cannot be manufactured. This means higher prices for drugs that are available through the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. It means more profits for big pharma.

Australia will also lose some of its own sovereignty with the treaty, as trade disputes will be decided by an international tribunal, not the courts in Australia. A clause to similar effect in the trade deal between Hong Kong and Australia has led to a lawsuit against the plain packaging laws for cigarettes being filed by Philip Morris – which, incidentally shifted its operations from Australia to Hong Kong in order to file the suit, after it lost a case in the Australian courts.

The Coalition government and Labor are as one on the TPPA – both will be obedient when it comes to the wishes of the US. The treaty will be revealed in all its shonky detail only after it has been signed, so the public have no idea of knowing how they are going to be shafted. What we know has come from leaks from various sources.

But with data retention, the Labor party — supposedly the Opposition — can very definitely vote against it in the Senate. If it did that, then the laws would not pass, given that the Greens are opposed to them. However, given its inherent craven nature, its inability to actually stand up for the people, Labor is not going to do this. It will roll over and back the government and its ultimate masters in Washington DC.

The metadata laws will not help in solving crimes. Many European countries, Germany included, have tried such schemes, and given them up because they cost a lot and bring little or no benefit. The public will pay the costs through increased internet connectivity bills.

But Australia's attorney-general George Brandis does not believe in evidence from other countries; he is satisfied with whatever the security agencies in Australia say. One of these security agencies, the Australian Federal Police, in a classic cock-up, has sent two Australian citizens to a likely death by firing squad for drug smuggling, when it could have caught them in Australia and penalised them under more humane laws.

But this level of competence is fine for Brandis, who probably feels he is dealing with kindred spirits in the security agencies given that he has repeatedly shown he is not exactly competent at his job. Birds of a feather...

The head of the AFP, Andrew Colvin, has gone on the record as saying that metadata will be used to track copyright violators. And that is precisely what will happen. The privacy of every single Australia will be violated because big American companies want their pound of flesh. The News Limited newspapers are behind the metadata scheme – after all the interests of their owner, Rupert Murdoch, are involved. With the majority of the Australia media, thus, against the people, who will take up cudgels for the masses?

At this point, I sure that you, gentle reader, would be scratching your head and asking why politicians, all of them Australian, would be trying to screw their own country. Let me explain.

When a politician is elected, the next thing he or she thinks of is how to get re-elected in order to continue riding the gravy train. These days, given that the voting public is getting more and more fickle, and throwing out governments after one term, politicians are trying more and more to cement their life post-politics with some big corporation or the other.

Witness the case of Alexander Downer who was a lobbyist for Huawei. Or Mark "faceless man" Arbib who pushes the interests of Crown Casino. Soon after the US-Australia FTA was concluded, several federal government bureaucrats took up highly-paid jobs with US multinationals.

Ultimately, it is all a question of self-interest. But that does not extend to the Australian public at large who appear to have been asleep at the wheel for a long, long time. Reality will hit in a few months.

Image: courtesy eff.org

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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