Views of Civil Society on USTR Review of Trade-Related Transparency Policies

As mentioned in an earlier KEI blog, on Thursday, March 19, a group of public interest groups met with the Obama administration’s trade officials. As a result of this meeting, USTR has promised to review its policies on transparency and invited groups to submit concrete proposals for evaluation. Further, these proposals are to be discussed as part of the review process in a follow up meeting next month.

Proposed areas of discussion include:

  • Disclosure of communications with foreign governments to the public
  • Disclosure of information about meetings such as participant lists and meeting agendas
  • Organized release of information to the public regarding contact with the private sector
  • Accreditation process for NGOs to participate as advisors/observers in meetings, including plurilateral, regional and bilateral negotiations
  • Stakeholders represented on USTR advisory boards as cleared advisors
  • Consulting with civil society on trade policy
  • Transparency in the Special 301 process including a framework for NGOs and countries to respond to industry submissions to the 301 list and setting norms defining the basis for decision-making

The same day, Attorney General Holder issued new FOIA guidelines reinforcing President Obama’s commitment to openness and transparency in government. The new guidelines instruct all executive departments and agencies to operate under a Presumption of Openness- “…an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally.”

The memorandum also states that “Each agency must be fully accountable for its administration of the FOIA” and in dealing with FOIA requests “…agencies should readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request…When information not previously disclosed is requested, agencies should make it a priority to respond in a timely manner.”

The new FOIA guidelines recognize the principles supported in general by civil society that transparency should be maintained for all government processes. Trade and international policy are areas that affect citizens far more than generally acknowledged. The promise of a review of USTR policy is a welcome start that will hopefully create an opportunity for greater public participation.

Below are comments from several groups on the proposed review of USTR’s policy on transparency:

Jonathan Band, American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries:

“We are encouraged by the new Administration’s commitment to review the transparency at the Office of the US Trade Representative. We suggest that USTR also establish a formal civil society advisory committee with equal statute to the various industry trade advisory committees. This will ensure that civil society representatives have the opportunity to provide USTR with timely comments on proposals.”

David Sohn, Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT):

“CDT welcomes USTR’s reported commitment to review its transparency policies. It has been apparent for some time that USTR’s ACTA negotiations in particular are not sufficiently transparent to ensure that the full range interests affected by the proposed agreement are adequately heard and considered. Hopefully USTR now recognizes that this kind of lack of transparency simply cannot be squared with the openness principles the Obama Administration adopted and publicly embraced immediately upon taking office.”

Ed Mierzwinski, U.S. PIRG:

“U.S. PIRG believes the first step toward government accountability is government transparency. We are encouraged by this important first step by the Obama Administration to shine light on trade policy negotiations long-hidden from civil society.”

Eddan Katz, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF):

“At this moment of global economic transition, the newly appointed US Trade Representative is wise to explore opening up the narrow circle of multi-national corporate consultants who exercised disproportionate influence over US trade policy under the previous administration. Introducing meaningful transparency and participation from other economic sectors in the development of US trade policy will leverage a broader cross-section of American innovation and creativity in order to maintain our competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy. In his first week, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk has already shown indications that his commitments to transparency and public debate will be consistent with the vision of effective and accountable government laid out by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. EFF looks forward to seeing the results of the new commitment to transparency in USTR’s disposition of material relating to the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which is the subject of pending Freedom of Information Act litigation between EFF and USTR.”

Ellen Shaffer, CPATH:

“CPATH would welcome greater transparency in trade negotiations, and the proposed review of transparency policy is a good beginning. CPATH is committed to gaining public health representation on trade advisory committees, which currently operate largely in secret and without participation by the public. There must be an effective voice for public health in trade policy, fair reporting from advisory committee meetings, and public responses from Congress and the Administration to public health recommendations.”

James Love, Knowledge Ecology International (KEI):

“The benefits of transparency are obvious to outsiders and minimized by insiders. Trade officials have to learn to see the world through the eyes of outsiders, to understand why this important. The review is a very welcome first step.”

Jean Halloran, Consumers Union:

“This is an extremely positive development–long overdue, and very welcome. I hope they can continue to look towards Codex as a living breathing working model of open international negotiation.”

Judit Rius Sanjuan, Knowledge Ecology International (KEI):

“If Obama trade officials follow through, it will make the government more accountable, give the public a greater voice, and connect policy with campaign promises.

Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University:

“I am cautiously optimistic.”

Robert Weissman, Essential Action:

“The commitment by the Obama USTR to review the secrecy that has surrounded US trade-policymaking is a very hopeful sign that we may enter a new era of openness in trade policymaking. Such openness would mean that citizens have the same ability to track, comment on, and attempt to influence policies-in-the-making as corporate insiders.”

Sherwin Siy, Public Knowledge (PK):

“We are very encouraged by the USTR’s expression of commitment to increased transparency. As Attorney General Holder’s recent memorandum on FOIA indicates, information should not be withheld merely because it can be. There must be a compelling reason –beyond a mere deference to habit or protocol–to hide the workings of government from the public, especially when it comes to agreements that can have such significant impacts on the law and policy that governs the flow of knowledge and information. We hope that these initial steps will lead to real improvements in the role the general public can play in its government’s policies.”

Winston Tabb, Johns Hopkins University:

“This sounds encouraging. If the trade officials follow through on these pledges, the Administration will do a lot to restore our hope and their credibility, which were beginning to flag.”