Groups: US gov't still withholding treaty information

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has withheld more than 1,300 pages on an anticounterfeiting trade agreement being quietly negotiated after two digital rights groups filed a request for information, the groups said.

The USTR has released only 159 pages for public viewing after the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Public Knowledge filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seven months ago. In September, the two groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after USTR didn't immediately respond to the FOIA request, which asked for information on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) being negotiated between the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries.

USTR asked to have more than 1,300 pages withheld because they involve national security or expose the agency's deliberative process, EFF and Public Knowledge said Thursday.

ACTA would allow the U.S., Canada, the European Union and other nations to enforce each other's intellectual-property (IP) laws, with residents of each country subject to criminal charges when violating the IP laws of another country, according to a supposed ACTA discussion paper posted on Wikileaks.org in May.

The Wikileaks document also talks about increasing border searches in an effort to find counterfeit goods, encouraging ISPs (Internet service providers) to remove online material that infringes copyrights, and increasing cooperation to destroy infringing goods and the equipment used to make them. Wikileaks is a site that posts anonymous submissions of sensitive documents.

Some copyright holders have suggested ACTA should require ISPs to filter their customers' Internet use and require ISPs to cut off customers' Internet access after repeated allegations of copyright infringement.

Officials from the two groups said they were disappointed by USTR's response. USTR has met with proponents of the treaty even as the agency refuses to release more documents to the public, they said.

"ACTA could lead to new invasive monitoring of Internet communications by your ISP and raises serious potential due process concerns for Internet users," EFF international policy director Gwen Hinze said in a statement. "It is crucial that citizens have access to information about its contents in a timely manner. The USTR's decision to withhold documents that citizens are entitled to see as a matter of law prevents citizens from evaluating ACTA's impact on their lives and expressing their opinions to their political leaders before it's a fait accompli."

A USTR spokeswoman didn't have an immediate comment on the complaints over the number of documents it has released.

The EFF and Public Knowledge lawsuit against USTR remains open, but the two groups have asked for a stay in the case pending action on new U.S. President Barack Obama's memorandum Jan. 21 saying that agencies should generally seek to fulfill FOIA requests, instead of deny them. Reversing a presumption that government documents should be closed under former President George Bush's administration, Obama said agencies should "renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government."

With the new Obama policy, the groups "hope that the USTR will reassess its less-than-forthcoming compliance with our FOIA request and provide the public with the much-needed transparency and accountability about this important global agreement," Sherwin Siy, Public Knowledge's staff attorney, said in a statement.

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