The IT price inquiry's link to the TPP

Trans Pacific Partnership watchers should refocus their attention on the forgotten IT price inquiry. It just might indicate Canberra's true position on copyright and IP matters.

In less than six months, the crusade to stop the tech-multinationals from ripping off Australian consumers has turned from a hot topic to a hot potato.

It may have been a vote-winner and also a bi-partisan campaign in its day, but since the delivery of the Committee report in July, both parties have gone silent on the matter.

Calls and questions from Technology Spectator to the offices of the inquiry’s chief spruiker Ed Husic and opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare went unanswered.

The communications department confirmed that the report will be tabled in parliament “early 2014” and until then, it offered this reply:

“The Government is carefully considering the Committee’s recommendations. It would be inappropriate to comment on the Government response before it has been tabled”.

It’s an anti-climactic end for what was a rather strenuous investigation into why Australians pay, what the committee deemed to be, up to 50 per cent more for IT products than the majority of our overseas counterparts.

And as many Technology Spectator readers have pointed out in the past, this rule extends into many other areas of consumer goods as well.

So why bring this up now? Why do we need to revisit a debate that, for the time being, has well and truly faded out of the public sphere?

Well, the IT price inquiry actually links up to another issue of intense public interest that Canberra is not commenting on, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade treaty.

This trade deal between the US and a raft of other Pacific-facing nations has been in discussion for the past couple of years.

The negotiations have come under intense public scrutiny for their secrecy and its potential to give US firms unprecedented power in controlling the distribution of IP and copyright-related web content – like music and movies – in Australia.

In short, it could lead to stricter enforcement (and punishments) for piracy and consequentially higher prices for content and other goods.

On the back of Wikileaks revealing a draft agreement of the TPP late last week, consumer watchdog CHOICE issued a statement flagging that if the agreement goes ahead as drafted it could contradict the recommendations made by the IT price inquiry.

Australian National University’s Matthew Rimmer, who has been following both issues, also sees a link between the two.

Citing a transcript from the inquiry, he argues that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [DFAT] may have misled the government on its efforts with the TPP agreement.

“I think there are real questions about whether or not they [DFAT] properly informed the IT pricing inquiry about the impact of the Trans Pacific Partnership,” he said.

"They seem to be saying to the inquiry that they were fighting really hard on the topic, taking it seriously, and you kind of read the text that's been leaked by WikiLeaks, and it’s not necessarily clear to me that Australia has been pushing for consumer rights and competition," Dr Rimmer says.  

"For instance, there's a debate over international exhaustion of rights at one stage, the US, Australia, Japan and Mexico are opposing language on the exhaustion of rights which would be helpful for access for consumers to access works. ”

In this regard, the TPP draft is worrying. But it is worth noting that it is still a draft – perhaps this leak will alter the outcome of the agreement?

For the moment, it will be worth looking at the ultimate outcome of the IT price inquiry as a measure of Canberra’s real position on the issues around the pricing and distribution of content over the web.

The US may be keen to close off TPP negotiations and finalise the treaty as soon as possible. But given the Australian government’s desire to wrap up the IT pricing issue by early 2014, and the sheer amount of disagreements in the leaked IP chapter of the document, it’s likely that Canberra will resolve this issue before any TPP is signed.

Throughout the price inquiry process there was always an argument that the government of the day would let it run its course, then ultimately turn around and say that changing IT prices in Australia is simply too hard.

Time will tell as to whether this prediction holds true.

The TPP may be in focus at the moment, but don’t take Canberra’s lead and forget about the IT price inquiry. Its outcome may be a sign of things to come. 

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