I'll pay for your secrets.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The Wrong Way to Make a Trade Deal Public

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

There are plenty of good reasons why prominent leftists and libertarians on Tuesday launched a campaign to collect 100,000 euros ($110,700) to reward whomever leaks the details of the trade deal the U.S. and the European Union are negotiating. It's a scandal that the document,  the text of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, hasn't been released to the public. I won't pledge a cent to the effort, though: I don't want the document to be bought from a thief.

QuickTake Free Trade Feud

The campaign's initiators include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis; journalist Glenn Greenwald, the man responsible for Edward Snowden scoops; whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg; and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. To them, TTIP, along with the other "Big Ts" -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trade in Services Agreement -- is the devil incarnate. 

The three treaties "aim to create a new international legal regime that will allow transnational corporations to bypass domestic courts, evade environmental protections, police the Internet on behalf of the content industry, limit the availability of affordable generic medicines, and drastically curtail each country's legislative sovereignty," the initiators wrote

That may or may not be true of the TTIP. As the bounty pledgers point out, the text under negotiation hasn't been made available to the public, but has been seen by corporate lobbyists. European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly ruled earlier this year that, despite U.S. opposition, there was sufficient public interest in disclosing negotiating documents but "no public interest as regards international relations exists in complying with unreasoned or unreasonable requests not to disclose documents. To consider otherwise would imply that the international partner would have an unfettered veto over the disclosure of any such document in the possession of the EU institutions."

O'Reilly, however, didn't require the disclosure of specific documents, such as the common text of the agreement itself, and the European Commission has only released bits and pieces -- mainly its proposals to the U.S. on various aspects of the deal.

At the same times, European politicians have been given access to the full text -- in "reading rooms" at U.S. embassies, where no electronic devices are allowed, where time to read the complex document is limited, and where readers have to sign lengthy confidentiality agreements. There have been reports, however, that corporations consulted during the drafting of the agreement and the talks received freer access. 

The expanding circle of people who have been allowed to see the full documents devalues the main argument against releasing them to the general public -- that, like poker players, negotiators need to keep their cards hidden lest they lose any edge they might have in the negotiations. Keeping TTIP from the general public and feeding it brochures and fact sheets that seek to dispel "myths" about something people have never seen only enhances the sense that the drafters have something to hide, and not because they want to get the best deal for their constituents.

The selective secrecy also breeds fundraising efforts like today's pledge, which by the time of this writing had collected almost $24,000 from 387 people. 

Government agencies, including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, pay whistleblowers for reporting wrongdoing. This is not the same, however. Money will be offered to someone -- probably a petty bureaucrat -- for stealing a government document. This is no better than any other form of corruption, even if it serves the public interest. 

Snowden revealed the scope of National Security Agency spying without any thought of financial reward. I can't be sure, but I think a standing offer of a bounty would have deterred him. Idealists considering leaking the TTIP text might lay low for fear of being accused of pecuniary motives.

Though TTIP may harm countries with laws and tariffs that protect domestic industries from rivals across the Atlantic, this is a negotiation, not a war. Assange and Varoufakis are used to framing situations in "us-versus-them" terms, but if bribing "them" is allowed, robbing them at gunpoint should be okay, too.

The pledgers' distrust of bureaucrats, politicians and lobbyists working on TTIP is understandable, but public protest and calls for idealistic whistleblowers to step forward would be a better way to express it. Even waiting until the negotiations are over and the European Commission releases the text of the treaty prior to signing and ratification is preferable: There will be enough time for debate then, and perhaps enough resistance to send the treaty's drafters back to the drawing board -- this time with an informed public breathing down their necks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net