While I often criticize our government, I feel both proud and happy to live and be a citizen of the United States. I find many other countries interesting, enjoy visiting them, taking in the culture and cuisine, meeting lots of people and don’t have any feelings of superiority just due to the national identity on my passport. I understand why people of many other nations have pride and patriotism in their countries and why most people on the planet like living in their home nation and, in spite of what we often tell ourselves, don’t want to move here.
I have never liked many of the trade treaties like GATT, NAFTA, CAFTA nor the enforcement bodies like the WTO. I believe in fair trade and grow sad when I hear that even iconic American products like a good old pair of canvas, high top Chuck’s are manufactured outside our borders. The ecological nightmare that is NAFTA also bothers me, because of decisions made by the governing body, Mexican farmers can use DDT as if “American” birds never fly across the border and Argentine fishing vessels can kill sea turtles and, in spite of US laws protecting the ancient animals, our national sovereignty is overridden and we cannot refuse to buy fish from people who kill animals our laws try to protect.
I do, however, have a strong sense of fair play and, while I may not agree with decisions made by the WTO, I feel strongly that the United States, in spite of our enormous wealth and power, must accept the rule of law and abide by the rules set forth in treaties that our government ratifies. If the US elects to ignore a specific treaty or portion thereof, it should withdraw from the body entirely. While America has the power and money, it should at least follow the rules it has promised to obey.
Thus, I bring to the attention of Blind Confidential readers an obscure recent ruling by the WTO that may have enormous consequences on intellectual property owned by Americans and US based companies. This, like so many true stories, feels more like a comic novel than actual news but you can look it up.
I first heard the story on NPR’s All Things Considered in a piece called, “WTO Ruling on Antigua-Based Web Gambling Sites.” After hearing the story, I did some more research into the decision and found that many articles turned up in a google search. One of particular interest came in CNET’s article, “Antigua blasts U.S. Net gambling laws.”
When it comes to laws and regulation regarding moral and personal behavior issues, I fall into the libertarian camp. I don’t care who you sleep with, what bets you place, what drugs you use, if you pay for sex, read dirty magazines or perform unspeakable acts with barnyard animals. I believe your right to swing your fists end where my nose begins or, to make a more specific statement, if your actions do not harm others (especially children) I don’t want to know about them nor do I care for anyone else to know about or, even more so, regulate my actions. I do believe strongly that active drug addicted and alcoholic parents should have their kids taken away, I believe people who perform sexual acts or even try to perform sexual acts with children or with a non-consenting adult, should go to jail for a really long time. I believe bookmakers who break legs or kill people over unpaid debts should go to jail, the same for violent drug dealers, intoxicated drivers and airline pilots. I can’t say that I care if an athlete throws a game as sports aren’t really that important and, in my mind, fall into entertainment and, like the WWF, shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Thus, you’ve now heard my opinion on such laws and regulations and we can return to our regular scheduled story.
“”We believe the time has come for the United States to demonstrate … whether the WTO agreements are to work for us all equally, or whether the WTO is
indeed a one-way street for the large economies to further enrich themselves at the expense of lesser ones,” John Ashe, Antiguan ambassador to the World Trade Organization, told diplomats at a session of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), according to the CNET story.
MSNBC reported, “In a ruling that could open the United States to offshore Internet gambling, a World Trade Organization panel Wednesday said Washington should
drop prohibitions on Americans placing bets in online casinos.”
The NPR story, which you can listen to at the link above, reported that a small time Long Island bookmaker named Jay chose to leave the US to start an online gambling business called the World Sports Exchange and base his business in Antigua. The island nation of 67,000 residents permits online gambling and, along with tourism, the gaming industry forms an important part of its economy.
Jay, not realizing that the US would ignore international law, came home to Long Island to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, 2002, with his family. There, the FBI arrested him for violating the Federal ban on interstate internet gambling. Jay, now a very wealthy, legitimate (everywhere in the world other than the US) bookmaker and vendor of gambling software to other betting web sites, was convicted and sent to the Club Fed, where else, but Las Vegas. Sitting bored in his cell, Jay received a rambling letter from someone who had heard of his case which suggested he petition the Antiguan government to file a complaint with the WTO against the US for violating international trade law.
Jay called his old college roommate, now a lawyer with absolutely no experience in international trade law and the two of them managed to convince little Antigua to take on the Goliath United States in an official trade dispute. Against all odds, the WTO, in a 290 page ruling, took the side of Antigua and Jay. Who is now out on parole and has left the country again to return to his business in the Caribbean.
The United States announced it would appeal the decision, certainly its right as a nation and that it would ignore the ruling no matter the outcome – a right it does not have under the trade treaty.
So, one may wonder, what sling poor little Antigua can use to slay the Goliath US? With only 67,000 people, Antigua could boycott everything the US sells and not a single American business would even notice. If it tried to lace travel restrictions on its citizens from visiting the US, they would only annoy their own business people. What, then could they do to really hit the US in its pocketbook?
According to the NPR report, Antigua plans on officially taking the action that, because the US will not abide by the trade laws that effect the little island nation, it will go after the US where they can do some real damage. Antigua plans on making itself an Internet copyright free zone. Their plan, according to both NPR and a bunch of other sources one can find in a google search, is to allow web sites based in the country to distribute any bit of intellectual property covered by US copyright without paying royalties to US companies, for free or at a charge to the consumer.
Can they get away with this? The answer is maybe. The WTO has been known to ignore trade violations when done in retaliation against countries that have ignored their other rulings.
So, one may think that Britney, Metallica and other pop stars will, like during the Napster boom, lose a few bucks due to slumping record sales as music fans turn to free or very low cost Antiguan downloads. When it comes to software, Microsoft, Adobe, Intuit and the other big players already withstand open piracy in Asia, South America Africa and elsewhere. Anyone with good web searching skills and really good virus protection software can almost always find a free copy of nearly any software product on some Eastern European server and the software companies, in spite of rampant piracy, endure.
Of course, software companies who make millions upon millions of dollars selling their products to corporations in the US, Canada, the EU and Australia and New Zealand who typically don’t flaunt copyright laws or, like Microsoft, Corel, AOL and others, get paid for software that comes pre-installed on new computers before the less copyright minded end users even get hold of their products can withstand a firestorm of Antiguan copyright free copies of their products.
What about the AT companies?
Like any market segment that sells relatively high priced products to a small number of consumers, the AT vendors feel the pain of piracy much more than do their consumer product cousins. Companies who make very high priced vertical market products can get badly hurt by a short term slip in their revenues. Screen reader vendors who find a lot of people downloading cracked copies of their software can literally go bankrupt if a large enough portion of their would be consumers choose to ignore copyright law, forego official technical support and download the products for free or little cost from a tiny nation retaliating against the US government’s refusal to comply with a treaty it did a lot to create.
Many people with vision impairments lament the high prices of AT products and scream about the unfair notion that screen reader vendors live high on the hog of windfall profits. The economics of the industry, however, is quite different than the perception. A company that makes screen readers must pay software engineers, quality assurance engineers, documentation and training specialists, product managers, technical support technicians and all others necessary to build software products at the same rate as their mainstream competitors. While everyone I know who makes screen readers for a living has a lot of pride in their work and a far greater sense of purpose than people who make quantitative equity analysis programs or accounting packages, they also have families, mortgages, car payments and the same living costs as everyone else. AT companies cannot ask their people to work for the warm and fuzzy feeling they get by making software whose users find so important. They can’t ask their employees to try to eat prestige. They are also not charities and, if they don’t make money for their investors, they won’t last very long.
I can already hear some of you arguing that this proves that the current model of making assistive technology products is broken. I can hear the cries of the open source people and of those who believe that screen readers should be built into operating systems. Unfortunately, VoiceOver by Apple isn’t mature enough to support all of the programs blind people need at work. The GNU/Linux gnome based screen readers are hardly more than demos. So, for now, the model we got is the only game in town and if a trade war hurts the screen reader vendors dramatically, any kind of innovation, any kind of progress and any kind of future for many blinks will immediately go on hold.
Please, write to the Commerce Department and suggest that they follow the WTO ruling and stop being so damned arrogant. Just because the US has the money and power does not mean that it can pick and choose the international laws it chooses to follow without suffering consequences. We, as Americans, need to stop the hypocrisy and accept the rule of law. Where’s Bob Barr when you need him?