On the first Monday of his presidency, Donald Trump made good on one of his most consistent campaign promises: he killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On the one hand, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the trade deal negotiated by his predecessor is no surprise: it’s a core element of the populist protectionism that propelled him to office. But abandoning TPP has also yielded, at least for a day, a weird political realignment. Today, civil libertarians are hailing one of the first moves of a new Republican administration. And big business isn’t.
It’s not often that civil liberties advocates—along with other advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and Doctors Without Borders—find themselves on the same side of an issue as President Trump. But digital privacy and rights groups roundly criticized the TPP for restricting the freedom of information and lambasted what they say was the lack of transparency in the drafting of the deal. “The TPP would have been a bad deal for digital rights, so we welcome its demise,” says Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The key pieces of the agreement at issue for digital rights advocates included provisions that would have strengthened copyright protections for digital content and lengthened copyright terms. Signatory countries would have had to make breaking such digital rights management protections (DRM) illegal. On the privacy side, TPP countries could not require tech companies to store all user data on local servers. The agreement would have also restricted how (and whether) countries could pass anti-surveillance laws limiting how private information is shared across borders.
But tech companies who make and sell things loved the deal, largely because those patent and DRM protections would have covered their highly profitable products. Meanwhile, the bans on local data storage meant big tech companies could what they wanted with the massive amounts of data they collect on users. Late last year, a large group of tech companies wrote an open letter to congress outlining why they wanted the TPP passed: “The agreement will keep borders open to the free flow of data, provide a strong and balanced intellectual property framework, prohibit data localization requirements and other barriers to digital trade, and protect trade secrets, among many other benefits.”
Though Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft have yet to comment on Trump’s decision, all four had supported the deal. Provisions in the TPP that privacy advocates saw as harmful they considered good for the open Internet. Google senior vice president and general counsel Ken Walker last year called the TPP “a step forward for the internet,” writing that the TPP “will support the Internet’s open architecture and make it more difficult for TPP countries to block Internet sites—so that users have access to a web that is global, not just local.”
A Temporary Alliance
To be sure, this realignment of interests isn’t likely to last. “I really suspect that something like the TPP is going to come out deformed, wrapped in pro-worker propaganda,” says Maria Sutton, formerly of the EFF, who worked for years as an advocate against the deal.
She suspects that future deals will likely be bilateral rather than involve so many countries. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer seemed to confirm that hunch today at his first official press briefing, saying the multilateral nature of the deal was what Trump most disliked. “The multinational agreements allow any one of those twelve countries to have the same stature as the US,” he said.
Still, the EFF at least sees hope for lasting change in at least one area: transparency when it comes to drafting trade deals. Leaders of the group met in Washington with members of the Trump transition team earlier this month, where they argued that negotiators should release the text of trade negotiations after every round and allow for public comment periods.
As someone who touts his deal-making prowess, Trump may even agree to such transparency as a way to flout the regular way things are done in Washington. Then again, getting Trump to release certain important documents has so far proven difficult (see: his tax returns). But at least for today, before any new deals are struck, advocates for the freedom of information are on Trump’s side.