The agreement reached this week on a new — and apparently final — version of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA, née NAFTA 2), is likely to be viewed as a setback by those looking to rein in the influence and market power of Google, Facebook and other U.S. technology giants.
The new agreement retains language mirroring Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, despite a last-minute push by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to get it removed.
The provision, which provides digital platforms with immunity from legal liability for content posted by their users, was originally intended to create a safe harbor where online platforms could find their sea legs in the early days of the internet. But it has come to be viewed by many in Congress and elsewhere today as a sop to the now behemoth tech companies, allowing them to profit from the spread of fake news, harassment and other dubious content unconstrained by regulation.
Retaining the language in international trade agreements could make it more difficult for Congress to repeal of modify Section 230 in the U.S. — as many on Capitol Hill would like to do — by obligating the U.S. by treaty to maintain the current, laissez-faire standard.
“I had one disappointment… [Section] 230, but I was too late coming in on it,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a press conference Tuesday to announce the agreement. “I lost – they had 230 in the agreement, there are some members that wanted that… it’s a real gift to big tech.”
In another win for tech companies, the agreement also includes language barring Canada and Mexico from enacting data localization laws that could force U.S. companies from processing and storing data collected from Canadian and Mexican citizens in those countries. A similar localization requirement in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) forced many U.S. technology companies to significantly retool their operations, at considerable expense.
Many outside the U.S. view such “data sovereignty” laws as a way to push back against the implicitly American-ized cultural and economic influence of the internet’s dominant platforms, and see the E.U. standard as a model for other territories. The provision barring them in the USMCA could raise at least a speed bump against their further spread.
Technology companies dodged another bullet could have poked a hole in their copyright safe harbor as well. The agreement retains language modeled on Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that shields user-generated content platforms from copyright liability for content posted by users, so long as the platforms follow a prescribed notice-and-takedown process.
Though once championed by rights owners looking to export U.S. copyright standards, many have since soured on the idea of including DMCA-like language in trade agreements, and the music industry in particular pushed hard for its removal from the USMCA.
With technology companies increasingly viewed as on the run politically — from GDPR and the E.U.’s recent adoption of a new Copyright Directive to rising concerns in the U.S. over their market power and porous content moderation — many in the copyright industries see their best chance since since the DMCA was enacted to roll back the scope of the safe harbor, which they blame for diverting billions of dollars of value from rights owners to technology providers.
The U.S. Copyright Office in coming weeks is expected to release the long-awaited findings from its nearly five-year review of Section 512, which are widely anticipated to include recommendations for modifications of the law.
The head of the Copyright Office, Karyn Temple, this week stepped down from her post to join the Motion Picture Association as general counsel, a move widely viewed in Washington as indication that the report’s findings will be favorable to copyright owners.
As with Section 230, however, retaining the 512 safe harbor in trade agreements could throw a wrench into legislative efforts to amend the DMCA by limiting Congress’ room to maneuver.
In a statement following announcement of the agreement, National Music Publishers Association president and CEO David Israelite lamented the result, saying publishers “remain concerned that the DMCA safe harbors in the agreement continue to devalue creators’ work and protect Internet service providers who should be doing more to prevent piracy and infringement.”
If there is hope for Sections 230 and 512 reformers at this point, it lies with the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, once a vocal supporter of USMCA, seems to have gotten cold feet on putting it to a vote now that a deal has been reached. In a statement Tuesday, McConnell said the Senate will not take up the USMCA until sometime next year, angering Democrats in the House, who want it see it done before Christmas.
McConnell is likely reacting to concerns raised by some Republicans that, in his zeal to claim a legislative victory, President Donald Trump made too many concessions to the Democrats, and Democrat-aligned groups on the terms of the agreement, particularly those relating to worker and environmental protections.
With an impeachment trial of Trump looming, where McConnell will need to hold his caucus together, he likely wants to avoid forcing his members into an awkward position of possibly opposing the president on a key priority until after the impeachment furor dies down — one way or another.
Delays can be deadly in Congress, and McConnell has now set the USMCA on a highly unpredictable path. Even in normal times, the appetite for taking potentially high-profile votes tends to dry up in election years. And these are anything but normal times.
A lot of mischief could still be made between this week’s hand shakes and whenever the USMCA ultimately comes to the Senate floor for a vote.