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TPPA, the trade agreement of our generation

Don Christie, Director, Catalyst IT. 01 July 2011, 5:15 pm
TPPA, the trade agreement of our generation

The importance of the innocuously-sounding Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement should not be underestimated. Abbreviated as TPPA, this trade agreement involves nine countries, including the USA.

It is the trade agreement of our generation and the terms that we agree to will be binding for decades. Presently, the TPPA is being negotiated in a series of rounds taking place in different countries. What is eventually being agreed to will become NZ law and will have wide-ranging effects on our lives and how we do business - nationally and overseas.

NZRise, which seeks to represent New Zealand owned and operated IT businesses has been following the TPPA carefully. As part of this watching brief, NZRIse worked with the Ministries of Economic Development and Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide an industry perspective to negotiators at the Vietnam round of the TPPA.


TPPA: some  background 

Kiwis usually think of trade agreements as deals that allow our farmers the same liberal access to markets the overseas organisations enjoy to our own markets. As a result, those of us outside the primary sector don't usually take much interest in these deals.

Our sectors were sold down the river in the 1980s in a fit of libertarian economic experiments that have not been repeated by any country on our planet, other than Iceland.

However, the nature of trade agreements has changed. This particularly so with the clash between the opportunities that technology is enabling today verses old business models that see their control over physical supply chains threatened. The involvement of the USA heightens this clash. The political realities of that country are that the industries that dominated the economy thirty years ago have the strongest influence on elected officials and their policy.

Car manufacturers own congress people and have enjoyed thirty years of bail-outs and financial support. Similarly the movie industry and (sadly) old established software industry have financed enough election cycles that their views on subsidies and control of the supply chain, via extreme copyright and other IP enforcement regimes, holds sway in political circles.

This will change in the future as Facebook, E-Bay, Amazon and Google swing into political action. In the meantime our industry is likely to be lumbered with a trade deal that reflects the reality of a technological environment that is 300 years out of date. In other words, the printing press for production and horses, carts and sailing ships for distribution.

All countries involved with the TPPA would like this agreement to progress for economic and geo-political reasons. The Chinese are coming. Yet all of them have very grave concerns about the intellectual property rights proposals that are coming out on the USA.

For Kiwis these aggressive IPR proposals mean we're not only risking the loss of rights to access to reasonably priced health care. It would also ensure that our IT industry is held in effective serfdom to the American IP monopolies through the broadening of Intellectual Property reach and through the criminalisation and enforcement regimes which threaten both businesses and consumers alike.


Hoe down in Ho Chi Minh City

NZRise worked with organisations such as InternetNZ, NZCS, TUANZ, NZOSS and the CCIA to put together an industry perspective on these issues. Our objective was to get a range of speakers to make short presentations to the negotiators from each TPPA country.

To do this we had to go to Vietnam, the venue for the current round of negotiations. We had to engage speakers, arrange a venue and find a time that these extremely hard pressed negotiators could spare to hear our message. With some Kiwi ingenuity, good support from our Vietnam embassy and support from the NZ TPPA delegation, we pulled it off.

It's fair to say the event was a success. Over 60 negotiators attended, representing all nine TPPA countries. Surprisingly this included the USA mission which has boycotted similar events in the past. They were accompanied by Michael Layne, First Secretary of the US embassy in Wellington.

Our own local NZTE trade commissioner, Graham Simms, also came, having helped us obtain a licence for the event.

As one of the speakers I spoke presented a perspective that is supported by much of our sector. In particular I talked about the need to build evidence-based policy frameworks that are flexible enough to support whatever the future may bring along with creativity and innovation. I also covered some downsides of the of strong IP enforcement regimes but noted that the IT sector was generally supportive of globalisation and FTAs.

Our second speaker, Dr. Peter Lovelock, gave an excellent presentation on the impact of IP legislation on cloud computing both at the infrastructural level and the consumer level. Peter's message is well researched and very credible, covered the notion that cloud computing fundamentally breaks copyright enforcement regimes as we know them. If we want to realise all the benefits that cloud promises, we need to review our copyright legislative frameworks.

Paul Brislen, CEO of TUANZ, gave a very effective talk on the implications of strong copyright enforcement on businesses and other consumers. He pointed out that the solution was not in new legislation and enforcement regimes but on new services to meet heightened consumer expectations. Piracy is not an indication of our innate criminality but a symptom of unrealised consumer demand Paul said.

Finally, Krista Cox of Knowledge Ecology International went into some very detailed analysis of the individual clauses in the USTR proposed text for the IP chapter. She specifically related this to technological implications although touched on human rights as well. Some of this analysis was quite devastating.


We got the message across

The feedback from negotiators who attended this event has been very positive. As well as asking for additional information it is clear that it was important for the voices of "new" technology sector was heard.

International affairs are not the natural bailiwick of people who just want to get on and do "good things" with technology. More and more, we ignore these issues that swoop above our heads at our peril.

If we want to be a country that develops innovative and world leading solutions then we need to make sure that we retain the freedoms and flexibility that were available to Bill Gates and Paul Allen when they "stood on the shoulders of others" and created Microsoft and all others involved in creating almost every tech company and product since.

Our future as a developed nation depends on this, and we must make sure the TPPA negotiations are concluded in a manner that won't hobble us but instead push us forward.


Don Christie is a director of Catalyst IT and one of the founders of NZRise.


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