Sunlight is the best disinfectant, or so wrote Judge Louis Brandeis of the US Supreme Court in a book in 1914. That quote begins: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases”. Quite.
That brings me again to the disingenuously-named Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, whose contents the public are not allowed to know even though our governments are rushing headlong to sign up to it. It’s clear that this treaty isn’t just about physical goods, but contains a significant section about the Internet.
Make no mistake, the provisions of ACTA will require its signatory governments to limit people’s freedoms. There wouldn’t be any point to it otherwise. And, even though ACTA has been under negotiation since 2008, we still don’t know what’s in it! So, we have the unappealing spectacle of a collection of mostly democratic governments negotiating away their citizens’ rights without letting those citizens know what is being talked about.
Those who promote ACTA say that there’s a lot of information publicly available. That’s a curious kind of ‘available’ from where I’m sitting. We don’t have the draft text. On the basis of leaks, we believe it contains provisions to cut off people’s Internet similar to those rejected after public protest in New Zealand.
Some governments are providing information on ACTA by public briefing. The New Zealand government recently provided a face-to-face briefing to selected people. There weren’t any media in the room, and they wouldn’t allow people to blog or tweet. That seems to be a common requirement around ACTA. Someone who tried to tweet in a recent Mexico ACTA briefing was thrown out by security. Claims that the text of ACTA is no more secret than other trade agreements have been shown to be rubbish. Even the EU Parliament is demanding transparency.
Unsurprisingly, it is only the general public, the ones whose rights get curtailed, who don’t get to see the draft treaty. Industry lobbyists – those who stand to benefit from restricting people’s freedom on the Internet – have a process for getting hold of the text under strict non-disclosure agreements. Cynics might suggest that it’s those lobbyists who are driving the treaty in the first place. It’s no wonder, really, that those who would curtail everyone’s freedoms don’t want us to see that coming before it’s too late. If citizens knew what their governments were doing the treaty they might pressure their governments to get it thrown out.
Maintaining secrecy so your citizens can’t find out what law you intend to pass until it’s too late is a breathtaking abuse of process. Citizen access to the law-making process is part of the social contract underlying modern democracies. Breaking that is just plain wrong, and I’m sure most legislators know that. More pragmatically, pushing through anti-citizen laws under the cover of secrecy can only lead to further undermining the trust of governments by their citizens and disengagement from the political process. It won’t pass unnoticed that the nations can come together and fail to make a meaningful agreement about climate change but they can happily work away in secret to agree to advantage an industry at the expense of everyone’s freedoms.
I’m going to finish with another American quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason.