EFF Demands US Trade Negotiators Publish Their Public Records

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EFF.orgIt’s no secret that the US Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive (USTR) has approached the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP) nego­ti­a­tions with a dis­ap­point­ing lack of trans­paren­cy. For years now, leaks have been an inad­e­quate sub­sti­tute to rea­son­able pub­lic pol­i­cy, and non-cor­po­rate groups have resort­ed to read­ing between the lines of press state­ments even as the stat­ed time­line of the agree­ment has blown by.

There’s anoth­er tool that mem­bers of the pub­lic can use to pry infor­ma­tion out of agen­cies like the USTR: the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act (FOIA). Through FOIA, groups like EFF can demand cer­tain kinds of infor­ma­tion, and the agency has a legal oblig­a­tion to pro­vide it. To that end, we’ve filed a FOIA request for cor­re­spon­dence records between USTR nego­tia­tors and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists about the TPP. When we receive respon­sive documents—likely some time in the new year—we’ll go through them and release what we’ve found.

This isn’t the first time a pub­lic inter­est group has used FOIA request to uncov­er this sort of infor­ma­tion. In fact, our request builds specif­i­cal­ly on ear­li­er requests from IP-Watch and Knowl­edge Ecol­o­gy Inter­na­tion­al, which helped the pub­lic under­stand the cozy rela­tion­ship between lob­by­ists and nego­tia­tors up to that point, in 2013. Our new request seeks to expand on the infor­ma­tion dis­cov­ered through that request and bring it up to date.

It’s nice that free­dom of infor­ma­tion laws make it pos­si­ble for the pub­lic to pull that infor­ma­tion from agencies—but real­ly, these agen­cies owe it to the pub­lic to sim­ply make it avail­able, with­out being asked. As pow­er­ful as FOIA can be, it gen­er­al­ly comes with a wait of weeks or months for records; and though it is avail­able to the pub­lic at large, many peo­ple are intim­i­dat­ed by the process of mak­ing demands of fed­er­al agencies.

The idea that the USTR should be mak­ing infor­ma­tion more avail­able and acces­si­ble as a default is not a rad­i­cal one. In fact, if you look through the agen­cy’s web site you’ll see, as is typ­i­cal on many gov­ern­ment agency sites, an “Elec­tron­ic Read­ing Room” of pub­lic infor­ma­tion. The USTR’s read­ing room bears this descrip­tion: “This page con­tains infor­ma­tion rou­tine­ly avail­able to the pub­lic as well as doc­u­ments fre­quent­ly request­ed under the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act.”

An emp­ty page greets vis­i­tors seek­ing “Cor­re­spon­dence Logs.”

Under that, it’s blank. But the nav­i­ga­tion menu on the left sug­gests cat­e­gories, like “Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee Meet­ings.” But the page that one pulls up is also blank. “Cor­re­spon­dence Logs” also leads to a blank page, despite the 127 pages released in response to the afore­men­tioned IP-Watch request. “Vis­i­tor Logs,” anoth­er cat­e­go­ry that might poten­tial­ly reveal embar­rass­ing prox­im­i­ty to lob­by­ists, is also empty.

Final­ly, in the main nav­i­ga­tion sec­tion of the site, there’s a cat­e­go­ry called “FOIA releas­es.” It’s not emp­ty, but it has­n’t been updat­ed since 2012—before the head of the USTR, Michael Fro­man, even stepped into his cur­rent role.

The fact that there are emp­ty pages where that infor­ma­tion ought to be is a pret­ty clear indi­ca­tor that the calls from EFF and oth­ers for more trans­paren­cy are not extreme. These are basic requests, encod­ed into the archi­tec­ture of fed­er­al agency sites, and they’re requests that the USTR is repeat­ed­ly and con­tin­u­ous­ly ignoring.

We’ll report back when we get the results of the FOIA request we’ve filed. We encour­age the USTR to post the respon­sive doc­u­ments pub­licly as well. Look to the exam­ple of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s release of Transat­lantic Trade and Invest­ment Part­ner­ship meet­ing details and nego­ti­at­ing texts: At a time when gov­ern­ments around the world are responding—slowly—to pub­lic calls for trans­paren­cy, it’s a stark and dis­ap­point­ing real­i­ty that the USTR won’t even pub­lish its pub­lic records.