The US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, has defended the American approach to trade negotiations and his country’s record on internet freedom.

Speaking to Crikey earlier this week, the Ambassador rejected criticisms of the US approach to secrecy in the Trans-Pacific Partnerships negotiations currently under way involving Australia and a range of other Asia-Pacific countries. Similar criticism was levelled at the US and our own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade over the now-failing Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

“I can’t comment on what’s going on in Australia, and what’s communicated here, but I can tell you how it works in the US, which is during negotiations as our negotiators are developing their recommendations, they’re constantly consulting with both sides of the digital divide, they’re talking to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and all of the NGOs because they don’t want to have an agreement that then blows up into a firestorm and they can’t get it ratified … they need to talk to industry both because of industry interests but also because a lot of the time there are questions of feasibility,” he said.

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“Could this be done, or not, are questions that only industry can answer; you’re always trying to strike a balance.”

Nor, drawing on his own background as a successful litigation lawyer, does he think the US has adopted a hardline approach on intellectual property and copyright issues. The US is a big intellectual property exporter, so “we have to some extent a higher interest because we tend to be a major net exporter of it”, he points out.

“I used to do some work with the recording industry, one thing I hadn’t appreciated is that for every 10 artists get signed up to a contract, nine of them are commercial failures, only one succeeds, and the way they pay for the other nine is the commercial success of the one, and that funds all the things that didn’t pan out. So you’d lose all the music from the other nine if the money from the one keeps getting siphoned off,” he said.

“We also don’t want to be in a position the public feels you’ve got this overly intrusive state preventing them from quiet enjoyment of their music, so you don’t want to have the equivalent of people coming down on someone for doing a photocopy of a cartoon in a magazine on the office photocopier saying that’s copyright infringement. It’s not the little stuff, it’s people systematically ripping off hundreds of millions and billions of dollars and killing industries, killing music. That’s what you need to stop, find that proper balance.”

Bleich also invoked what has been, under Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, an extraordinarily strong US line on internet freedom (including endorsing online anonymity and even promoting anonymisation tools), that has often seemed at odds with US policy in other areas.

“We’re probably one of the great advocates in the world of open internet, no internet filtering, no censoring of the internet, the internet needs to be an open resource for the world, like a global commons,” he said. “On the other hand, saying if we’re gonna have a global commons they’re have to be some rules, like ‘you can’t steal’, and trying to get the lines right, and when we get them wrong, we have a very, very sophisticated set of constituencies in the US that are keeping an eagle eye on this and raising concerns whenever they think that a line could be crossed.”

Alluding to the defeat of the hugely controversial SOPA bill earlier this year, he said: “If you look at what happens in the US when there is a sense that the US has crossed the line, there’s a major backlash among netizens and NGOs.”

After more than two-and-a-half years in Australia, there are some local things Bleich thinks might be useful for Americans to consider. “My job is not to tell the US Congress how it can be more like Australia but there are things that I very much like here,” he said.

He’s intrigued, he says, by compulsory voting. “It shifts the focus on money, because you can’t slice and dice the electorate, ‘how do you get this constituency to come out, how do you discourage that constituency from coming out to vote’, and ‘let’s find issues that are issues that are wedge issues between these little groups in electoral states’, instead everyone’s going to vote, you got to talk to issues that matter to everyone,” he said.

Another is question time: “I think the idea that politicians can’t stand behind prepared talking points and just make themselves available when they feel comfortable being made available but instead have to step up and you have pot shots on live TV, is good for increasing a real sense of transparency … it’s something I think a lot of American politicians would find challenging.”

And he’s particularly impressed with the ABC’s Q&A, on which he’s appeared twice. “That’s not how we’ve typically done diplomacy in the past. Diplomacy has always been, you get a set of talking points, you say only those, you don’t do question and answer, and if you do, you say things like ‘no comment’.

“In the internet age, people have a much higher expectation, there’s a flattening of information, a sense that ‘I should have access to people who traditionally been walled off from me’ in multiple layers, I think there’s a sense that there should be authenticity, I want to see how you actually think about it, not how 12 people in your office who are working to craft things tell you to react.”

Bleich, who once described himself as a “recovering lawyer”, says he’s definitely acquired a taste for diplomacy. But how long he remains in Australia, of course, depends on what happens back home in November.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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