Senators blast Obama's secret trade talks as Fox head calls for '3 strikes'

The CEO of News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox Filmed Entertainment this week called for a U.S. "three strikes" law, similar to one just passed in France that would cut off suspected Internet pirates' Web connections and could land them in jail. Speaking at a press conference in Athens, Fox's Jim Gianopulos called internet piracy the single greatest threat facing Hollywood and said it was internet providers' responsibility to police their users for illicit activity. "If we can do that, it would be a big victory against piracy," Gianopulos said.

The Hollywood executive's comments came as Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio wrote to the Obama administration, expressing their concern over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which the world's top nations are negotiating, largely in secret talks.
ACTA is a global trade agreement focusing on intellectual property. Some among its potential signatories want to make it easier to crack down on digital piracy, but critics charge that they want to cut off alleged offenders' Web connections, as well as make it easier for authorities to search and even seize personal computers at the airport in an effort to root out copyright infringement.

'Seize Your iPod at the Border'

Chris Israel, the Bush administration's coordinator for international intellectual property enforcement, thinks such concerns are wildly overblown. "A lot of the 'seize your iPod at the border' stuff is manufactured out of thin air to fan the flames," he says. Israel is managing partner at PCT Government Relations, which represents a major media company involved in the talks that Israel declines to name.

Also under discussion: a measure that would provide a "safe harbor" for ISPs, protecting them for prosecution if they comply with the tough measures to identify and sanction alleged internet pirates.

Unfortunately, the treaty's secrecy has made it difficult to learn its status. Proponents of harsher copyright enforcement call the treaty's critics "alarmist," but the treaty's lack of transparency has created a fog of confusion. To remedy the situation, U.S. Sen. Sanders (a Vermont indepdenent) and Brown (an Ohio Democrat) sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, ojecting to the government's secrecy and asking "that the public be allowed to review and comment on substantive proposals for a new Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement."

'A Desire to Avoid Potential Criticism'?

"The public has a right to monitor and express informed views on proposals of such magnitude," the senators argued. "For that to happen, they need to have access to information, including relevant meeting details such as time, place, agenda and participants, reports or minutes of meetings, and key documents and negotiating texts distributed to all members of the negotiation." The two senators point out that Obama's January 21, 2009 "Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government" emphasizes "the importance of transparency, public participation, and collaboration in government."

"We are concerned that the secrecy of such information reflects a desire to avoid potential criticism of substantive provisions in the ACTA by the public, the group who will be most affected by the agreement," the senators said.

But Israel says concerns over transparency are unfounded. "The process behind ACTA is not substantively different from similar trade agreements," he says. "This is an agreement between leading economies on intellectual property that seeks to tie together various individual bilateral agreements in a more comprehensive way. It's just a good thing to do."

"I think it's more transparent to have a standard, rather than a bunch of individual agreements," he says. "But it's not something you can negotiate online in the blogopshere. This involves senior officials talking in confidence with each other, going over the text line by line."

Rupert Murdoch Favors Three Strikes

The senators' letter comes as powerful Hollywood sources increase their calls for a crackdown on internet piracy, which they say costs the film and music industries billions in revenue every year. This month, Rupert Murdoch expressed support for a three-strikes-like plan. "There's a lot of movement to get that put in America and become a world standard," Murdoch told Sky News, "because in the music industry today, it's very, very hard for young talent to get started and established."

Libertarian activists and consumer groups have blasted ACTA on both its secrecy and its harsh penalies. Many consumer groups feel that powerful corporate interests are disproportionally shaping the outcome -- with little or no public involvement. "The public has a right to know the contents of the proposals being considered under ACTA, just as they have a right to read the text of bills pending before Congress," Sanders and Brown said.

Ben Sheffner, a copyright lawyer who works at NBC, says the criticism of ACTA has gone too far. "There is no agreement yet," he said in a recent post on his blog, which reflects his personal opinion, not his employer's. "Negotiations over ACTA may well last another year or more, and each round will likely produce more drafts, more revisions, and more leaks. And one thing is clear: whatever emerges from the negotiation process will not represent the radical change in U.S. law that the more irresponsible among the ACTA critics are claiming will result."
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