Tech industry desperate for US action on the Trans-Pacific Partnership

With Clinton and Trump both opposed to the trade deal, time is short for supporters

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial trade deal supported by many U.S. tech companies, is on death row, with both major party presidential candidates opposed. 

It's a long shot, but some tech trade groups are hoping for last-minute clemency from Congress and outgoing President Barack Obama. The trade groups are pushing for Congress to vote to approve the deal after November's general election, in the lame-duck session before a new Congress and a new president takes office.

The TPP, a free-trade deal negotiated among the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Region nations for seven years, has become a major presidential campaign issue in recent months. 

Supporters say it would open up new markets to U.S. companies and make it easier for them to sell the products. But critics --- including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton -- worry it would make it easier for U.S. companies to move jobs overseas, would drive down U.S. wages, and would balloon the country's trade deficit.

Supporters of the deal say it would eliminate 18,000 tariffs on U.S. products, would improve worker rights in many countries, and would require signatories to take steps to protect the environment. The TPP is especially attractive to the U.S. tech industry, which sees the Asia-Pacific Region as a growing market for its products.

"There are broad benefits for the economy and for consumers, who have access to [more] goods here in the United States as well," said Tiffany Moore, vice president of congressional affairs at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

Opponents say the deal will make it easier for U.S. companies to ship jobs overseas and will contribute to an annual U.S. trade deficit that was US$531.5 billion in 2015. Critics of trade deficits say they discourage U.S. manufacturing.

The TPP also has detractors in the digital rights community, with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation saying the deal would enshrine controversial copyright protections and enforcement measures across the signatories. The deal would widen the adoption of anticircumvention provisions in the U.S. Digitial Millennium Copyright Act, for example.

The copyright and other tech-related issues in the TTP have "definitely been overshadowed" by broader economic issues, said Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the EFF. The issues in the U.S. presidential campaign are "more politically volatile."

In addition to copyright concerns, the EFF has protested the TPP's provisions to criminalize disclosures of trade secrets, even for the purposes of journalism or whistleblowing. Other provisions relating to encryption and domain names, which opponents see as "inappropriate" for inclusion in a trade deal -- were negotiated without input from the wider Internet community, Malcolm said.

Opponents in the digital rights community are "riding on the wave of discontent about the agreement," Malcolm added. "We're not antitrade. We'd be happy with a trade agreement that didn't have the problems we've identified."

After either Clinton or Trump takes office, the deal is almost certainly dead in the U.S. But supporters, including the CTA, are pushing for congressional action late this year. Other tech trade groups declined to talk about their strategy in the coming months.

So is Obama. He promised to push for the deal during a press conference in early August. "Right now, I’m president and I’m for it and I think I’ve got the better argument," he said after questions about opposition from Clinton and Trump.

The U.S. is part of a global economy, he said then. "We're not reversing that," he added. "It can't be reversed because it is driven by technology, and it is driven by travel and cargo containers .. and our export sector is a huge contributor to jobs and our economic wellbeing."

CTA has called on the Clinton campaign to reverse its opposition to TPP, given that Clinton supported the deal while she served as Obama's secretary of state and that vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine voiced support for the deal as recently as mid-July.

However, the "best-case scenario is that somehow the bipartisan consensus on trade can prevail" in Congress by the end of this year, said CTA's Moore. "There's been so much work that's been done on TPP."

No matter who is elected president this fall, delaying action until next year would "restart the conversation" about TPP, she added. "If it doesn't happen this year, then we could be waiting for years. That makes it very difficult for our companies to compete in a number of markets."

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