Trade Agency Pledges to Review Its Transparency

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The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has pledged to review the transparency of its trade negotiations after criticism over its recent decision to withhold information on an intellectual-property trade agreement.

USTR officials confirmed Tuesday that the agency, part of the White House office of President Barack Obama, will begin a long-term review of its transparency, including "how the agency acquires information from the public and transmits information to the public," said USTR spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh.

The pledge to review transparency comes after three groups, Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking details about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a trade pact being negotiated among the U.S. and several other countries.

USTR has denied those information requests, telling KEI that the antipiracy pact is "properly classified in the interest of national security."

Consumer groups and KEI have complained that ACTA is being negotiated in secret and could have a significant impact on how intellectual-property laws are enforced in the U.S.

ACTA could include an agreement for the U.S., Canada, the European Commission and other nations that are part of the talks to enforce each other's intellectual-property laws, with residents of each country subject to criminal charges when violating the intellectual-property laws of another country, according to a supposed ACTA discussion paper posted on in May.

Obama promised to make the U.S. government more transparent to the public during his campaign for president. In a Jan. 21 memo, Obama instructed agencies to presume that information requested by the public should be released, unless there are compelling reasons not to.

EFF and Public Knowledge have a pending lawsuit against USTR for its denial of their requests for information on the trade pact. That lawsuit, dating back to the administration of former President George Bush, has been stayed until June 30 as both sides wait on transparency guidance from the Obama administration.

USTR's internal transparency review will be an "ongoing process," Mesloh said. "The criteria will be to maximize the information we can make available to the public without compromising our ability to negotiate agreements that maximize the gains for Americans to benefit from international trade," she said.

Representatives of USTR met last Thursday with representatives of four groups, including KEI and EFF, said James "Jamie" Love, director of KEI, an intellectual-property research and advocacy group.

"KEI is very impressed with the USTR decision to undertake a review of USTR transparency efforts," Love wrote on the KEI blog. "They are taking this much further than simply reviewing policies on the Freedom of Information Act, or recent controversies over the secrecy surrounding the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement negotiations. The review offers the possibility of more transformative changes, including pro-active measures to enhance transparency, covering all aspects of USTR operations."

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