ORGcon 2014

TTIP on the horizon

Some notes from the UK’s biggest digital rights conference, this year focussing on government surveillance

Cory Doctorow photographed by Dave Morris at ORGcon 2012; used to promote the event.

Saturday, 15 November, 2014: Several hundred people interested in digital rights congregate at King’s College London’s Waterloo campus, for the Open Rights Group’s 2014 conference. I am proud to have been elected to the board of ORG in 2013, having been a founding member of the Advisory Council, so I figured I should share some of my notes from the conference.

I’ve already written about Cory Doctorow’s opening keynote, but there were many other sessions across the day. To avoid these pieces becoming too long and unwieldy, I’m covering an individual session in each piece. I didn’t attend this session myself, so apologies for the somewhat sketchy write-up.

TTIP protest in London, 21 July 2014. Photo by the World Development Movement, from Flickr, licensed CC-BY.

While I was in the session “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, another 1200–1250 session was on the subject of TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Subtitled “Why this global treaty is a huge threat to democracy and our privacy in the EU”, this session was a discussion between Nick Dearden of the World Development Movement, Glyn Moody, a technology writer who has blogged at length about TTIP and published presentations on the topic from Re:Publica and more generally, and Ed Paton-Williams, a campaigner at ORG.


The first point raised was that TTIP is “a non-growth growth agreement”; the growth expected from TTIP is between –2% and +0.05% — this is a rounding error. And, as Glyn Moody pointed out at Re:Publica, this kind of investment stimulus arguably wouldn’t even be necessary were it effective:

  • US investment of €1.3 trillion in the EU is 3× higher than in all of Asia;
  • EU investment of €1.4 trillion in the US is 8× the investment in India and China combined.

Trade between the EU and the US in 2012 totalled €500 billion; the two polities combined make up half the world’s GDP and a third of global trade flows. With EU/US trade tariffs being under 3%, the only way in which TTIP is a traditional free-trade agreement is in its lack of transparency; the main purpose of TTIP is to reduce “non-tariff barriers”:

Of course, there are two ways one may normalise these non-trade barriers — levelling up or levelling down; the cynics among us will not be surprised which of the two is happening.

Data protection

One of the purposes of TTIP might be to guarantee the security of users’ data and privacy rights across borders; Reuben Binns, a PhD researcher at the University of Southampton shared this infographic about UK data transfer arrangements:


Another major concern with TTIP is something known as ISDS, standing for Investor–State Dispute Settlement. The principle of ISDS is to protect investors from arbitrary actions from governments and from weak justice systems, particularly in the developing world; it achieves this by allowing corporations to sue national governments for the expropriation of potential future profits, in specialist, closed courts, over democratically-made decisions.

Graph of investor–state dispute settlement cases, The Economist, 11 October 2014.

The history of ISDS has not been positive, with over 500 cases since the late 1980s, including Swedish energy company Vaterfall seeking €3·7 billion from the German government after deciding to shut down its nuclear power industry in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, a $2·3 billion award against Ecuador in favour of Occidental Petroleum after the state terminated an oil-concession contract (half the country’s annual healthcare spend). Philip Morris’s suit against Australia over plain tobacco packaging led Australia to rule out ISDS clauses in future trade agreements (or had done, at least) and has caused New Zealand to delay implementing similar legislation until after any settlement.

Limiting political choice

Trade deals like TTIP often enshrine corporatism and limit the political choices that democratically-elected governments might make:

The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) wrote a report last year raising concerns about four particular areas where the European cultural norms differ from US norms:

Earlier this year a similar trade agreement was signed between the EU and Canada, CETA. While the European Commission has indicated it’s not the case, there is concern that there are copyright provisions substantially similar to ACTA; Maude Barlow, chair of citizens’ advocacy movement The Council of Canadians, has also raised concerns about environmental and economic non-tariff harmonisation measures in CETA. There are definitely similar concerns about TTIP:

There is particular concern here in the UK that TTIP would threaten the NHS and formalise the privatisation narrative:

Of course, there is is also concern that the ISDS mechanisms simply cost money to the taxpayers; failing to pay these fines can be crippling:

ISDS is falling out of favour

UN figures revealed in October showed that US companies have sued other nations 127 times in ISDS cases in the past 15 years. Such measures are finally beginning to cause concern in Brussels and Berlin is rejecting the ISDS clauses in discussions with the US Trade Representative. When even The Economist dislikes your ‘free-trade’ measures, you know you have a problem:

The Stop TTIP campaign has released a 7'39" video about the danger of ISDS clauses in TTIP; with audio in English, there are also subtitles in Danish, French, German and Spanish:

Suing the state: hidden rules within the EU–US trade deal, by Corporate Europe Observatory on YouTube.

Equally, the kinds of companies that are in favour of TTIP aren’t renowned for their tendency to refuse state subsidies:

Negotiated in secret — again

Members of Poland’s Palikot’s Movement held up Guy Fawkes masks to protest the Sejm voting to approve ACTA. Photo from the AP, via the BBC, used without permission.

Part of the problem with ACTA was the lack of transparency in the negotiating process; protests were partly due to the perception that this secret deal was threatening ordinary people’s use of the Internet.

The lack of transparency, however, is rather selective — as well as the NSA spying on EU members’ embassies in the US and the NSA spying on European officials on this side of the Atlantic, the US, China and Russia all have access to all EU negotiating documents, as do most large companies and industry associations; it’s only us, the public, who did not. It is difficult to see this as anything other than corporate interests seeking to avoid another ACTA-style failure.

Karel de Gucht, photographed at Limburg Chamber of Commerce in 2010. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, where it is licensed CC-BY.

Karel de Gucht, at the time EU Trade Commissioner, said that “you cannot negotiate openly”, though it is plain to see that this is not some simple truth — the WIPO Treaty for the Blind was a model of transparency, with public drafts, structured stakeholder input with reports and summaries, and live webcasts of the negotiations.

Transparency in treaty negotiations is vital if we are to continue to describe our nations as democracies. Without being able to access the text of draft treaties, we are reliant on our politicians and vested interests to ‘interpret’ the text for us; we can never be sure that we are correctly analysing and understanding the implications of the text. If we are to engage with our representatives in order to lobby as individuals and as civil society organisations, this is essential.

It’s good to see the European Court of Justice stating that there should be greater transparency in negotiations and the European Council’s decision to declassify the negotiating mandate.

From the audience, Sarah Ludford, Lib Dem MEP for London from 1999–2014 and member of the House of Lords, challenged Glyn Moody’s narrative on ISDS.

In subsequent conversations, Sarah Ludford clarified that she supports TTIP in principle and that she supports investor protection provided that it doesn’t undermine EU regulations.

As I mentioned at the start, this is not a session I attended in person, so please do leave comments if there are any points you feel I missed or misunderstood.

ORGcon 2014 was generously sponsored by F-Secure and Andrews & Arnold Ltd. The Open Rights Group exists to preserve and promote your rights in the digital age; we are funded by hundreds of people like you.

This article is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Please translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

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