Lack of information surrounding the free trade negotiations a concern for those on both sides of the divide
Japan now an official negotiating member, next round of talks slated to be hosted in Brunei
IT’S not often that a debate would see consensus from opposing teams but it was certainly the case when Consumers International and Digital News Asia (DNA) hosted one on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement on July 18.
With the proposition “That the TPP will harm Asia’s growing digital economies,” it was Shawn Tan, founder and director of Aeste Works Sdn Bhd, whose own experience in preparing for the debate summed up the core issue surrounding the negotiations.
He began his time as the second speaker by sheepishly confessing to the crowd that he “was invited and parachuted in at the last minute” to participate in the debate on the anti-TPP team.
“The trouble was, I could hardly find anything about the TPP. There is hardly any information on the agreement and what’s online is mainly speculation from both sides,” he said.
“For the side I’m on, the concerns are based on fear. This fear is founded and fair because the other side is not releasing any information on the content of the TPP and that’s the No 1 problem -- no one knows exactly what it is,” he added.
It was a sentiment echoed by A. Asohan, DNA’s executive editor, who sat on the pro-TPP team, noting that with the exact terms of the TPP yet to be decided, it was a great opportunity “to air out these concerns.”
“But like Shawn [Tan] said, there is a lot of fear-mongering which stems from this lack of information,” he added.
Lending the viewpoint of the everyday consumer was Angela McDougall from the anti-TPP team, who noted that while it was difficult to speak comprehensively on the agreement, with much shrouded in secrecy, its impact on consumers couldn’t be denied.
“Everything is digital now, from how we connect, contact, communicate and share information. The provisions proposed in the TPP have the power to impact how we do it in a huge way,” said the senior policy advisor from Australian consumer advocacy group Choice.
McDougall pointed to information contained in leaked documents that have surfaced online, which has similarities with the terms of free trade agreements Australia has already signed with the United States.
“Without parallel imports, in Australia we pay 50% more for many products including things like songs from iTunes. Why are we paying more?” she said.
In the case of copyright protections, McDougall noted that the team doesn’t agree with copyright infringement but questioned the need to control consumers’ access, with criminal liabilities that “have nothing to do with infringement.”
“We already have some of these restrictive regulations in effect in Australia, but we know that the TPP is trying to go beyond that. With the copyright regime we have in the country now, there is no way Google could have set up shop. Why would we want to export this flawed regime to other countries? We need to recognise the threat the TPP presents to Asia’s rising digital economies,” she said.
Tan supported the points raised by McDougall, noting that with one of the main issues being copyright, Malaysia’s own Copyright Act was amended last year – to make it more in line with the provisions outlined in the TPP.
“A lot of digital rights management and content production protection measures were added to the Act, and its implications affect all, with the exception of government, law enforcement and school libraries, with narrower restrictions,” he said.
Pointing to one section of the amended Act, which states that there cannot be any circumvention of any copyright protection measure, Tan used DVD players as an example.
“Go to any store in Malaysian and the DVD player box will have a label that says ‘Region 3 only’, which means you should only be able to play DVDs officially released for the region. But the seller will tell you, ‘Aiyah, just on the box, inside all can’ and if you bring it home and try it with DVDs from different regions, you are actually circumventing the protections in place and are thus liable,” he said.
Tan admitted that that in terms of economic impact, piracy of content has a negligible effect, as Malaysia is a net consumer and not producer of such goods, but the implications of wide-scale infringement impacts all.
“If you criminalise everyone in the country, and keep in mind its about RM25,000-RM500,000 per infringement, while it may not contribute in terms of economic production, we’re huge consumers and would all go broke because we can’t pay the fines,” he said.
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