Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hitting 'Em Where It Hurts [UPDATED]

One of the oft-heard criticisms of the WTO dispute settlement system - rightly or wrongly - is that it lacks real teeth.  Yes, a WTO Member could theoretically face retaliation if it refuses to comply with a WTO panel or Appellate Body ruling against its protectionist measures, but this mechanism often fails to push the Member into complying for two main reasons: (i) as Econ 101 teaches us, the primary means of WTO-sanctioned retaliation - increased duties on the Member's exports - also hurts the WTO Member(s) who originally complained, won and then received permission to retaliate, thereby eliminating any economic incentive to do so; and (ii) smaller - oftentimes developing country - Members import such insignificant amounts of goods and services that any retaliatory duties imposed against another Member (especially the big boys in Brussels and Washington) would fail to cause enough "pain" to affect the offending Member's trade behavior.

Thus, the primary reasons - in my opinion, at least - why nations comply with adverse WTO decisions are strategic (i.e., to maintain the legitimacy of WTO dispute settlement process, particularly given the fact that the "defendant" Members will be, or are already, complainants in other cases) and political/diplomatic (i.e., to avoid looking like an international trade scofflaw and facing all the bad press that comes along with such a title).  Such incentives have been pretty successful in holding the permissive WTO dispute settlement together, but they certainly aren't perfect.  Indeed, as Dan Ikenson unfortunately notes, the United States quite frequently ignores adverse WTO rulings, especially when sacred American cows like trade remedies are involved:
U.S. policies have been the subject of more World Trade Organization disputes (119, followed by the EU with 73, then China with 30) and have been found to violate WTO rules more frequently than any other government’s policies. No government is more likely to be out of compliance with a final WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) ruling – or for a longer period – than the U.S. government. To this day, the United States remains out of compliance in cases involving U.S. subsidies to cotton farmers, restrictions on Antigua’s provision of gambling services, country of origin labeling requirements on meat products, the so-called Byrd Amendment, a variety of antidumping measures, and several other issues, some of which were adjudicated more than a decade ago. In some of these cases, U.S. trade partners have either retaliated, or been authorized to retaliate, against U.S. exporters or asset holders, yet the non-compliance continues as though the United States considers itself above the rules.

Despite all the official high-minded rhetoric about the pitfalls of protectionism and the importance of minding the trade rules, the U.S. government is a serial transgressor. Nowhere is this tendency to break the rules more prevalent than it is with respect to the Commerce Department’s administration of the antidumping law. Nearly 38 percent (45 of 119) of the WTO cases in which U.S. policies have been challenged concern U.S. violations of the WTO Antidumping Agreement.
Clearly, the United States (and, yes, many other countries) has for years been able to skirt WTO rules and adverse decisions when a protectionist measure's political value outweighs the WTO-sanctioned retaliation (or threat of retaliation) that the measure provoked.  That's certainly the government's prerogative, and I certainly wouldn't argue against the voluntary nature of WTO compliance (for reasons discussed at length here).

However, recent events do leave me wondering whether a new form of retaliation - against intellectual property rights rather than imports of goods or services - could tip the scales a little more towards "compliance" and away from "political expediency," especially for big, developed countries like the United States and the EU.  In particular, Antigua recently announced that - due to continued US non-compliance with a WTO ruling against a discriminatory American online gambling law - the island nation has sought and received permission from the WTO to infringe on US copyrights, instead of imposing duties on US goods:
In 2005 the WTO ruled that the US refusal to let Antiguan gambling companies access their market violated free-trade, as domestic companies were allowed to operate freely. In 2007 the WTO went a step further and granted Antigua the right to suspend U.S. copyrights up to $21 million annually.

TorrentFreak is informed by a source close to Antigua’s Government that the country now plans to capitalize on this option. The authorities want to launch a website selling U.S. media to customers worldwide, without compensating the makers.

The plan has been in the works for several months already and Antigua is ready to proceed once they have informed the WTO about their plan. Initially the island put the topic on the WTO meeting last month, but the U.S. blocked it from being discussed by arguing that the request was “untimely.” This month Antigua will try again, and if they succeed their media hub is expected to launch soon after.

Antigua’s attorney Mark Mendel told TorrentFreak that he can’t reveal any details on the plans. However, he emphasized that the term “piracy” doesn’t apply here as the WTO has granted Antigua the right to suspend U.S. copyrights. “There is no body in the world that can stop us from doing this, as we already have approval from the international governing body WTO,” Mendel told us.
Antigua's plan is indeed a crafty one - the tiny country with (I'm assuming) insignificant US imports can hit the United States where it actually hurts (namely, Hollywood and Silicon Valley) yet avoid imposing equivalent pain on its own citizens.  However, Mr. Mendel and his clients can't take all the credit: as you may recall, this kind of "cross retaliation" was first devised recently pushed [Ed. note: apparently Ecuador first used the IPR cross retaliation idea in the 1990s Banana dispute, back when I was still a beer-swilling frat guy; it remains uncommon, however.] by Brazil when the United States refused to scuttle cotton subsidy programs that had been repeatedly found to be WTO-illegal.  Of course, Brazil never went through with the threat because the US government agreed to pay hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in "technical assistance" to Brazilian cotton farmers.  (Insert appropriate sound effect.)

Maybe Antigua is angling for a similar payoff, but one thing's for sure: after years of getting the ol' brushoff, the little island has definitely gotten Washington's attention:
The United States warned Antigua and Barbuda on Monday not to retaliate against U.S. restrictions on Internet gambling by suspending American copyrights or patents, a move it said would authorize the "theft" of intellectual property like movies and music.

"The United States has urged Antigua to consider solutions that would benefit its broader economy. However, Antigua has repeatedly stymied these negotiations with certain unrealistic demands," said Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

The strong statement came after the tiny Caribbean country said it would suspend U.S. copyrights and patents, an unusual form of retaliation, unless the United States took its demands for compensation more seriously in a ruling Antigua won at the World Trade Organization.

"The economy of Antigua and Barbuda has been devastated by the United States government's long campaign to prevent American consumers from gambling on-line with offshore gaming operators," Antigua's Finance Minister Harold Lovell said in a statement.

"We once again ask ... the United States of America to act in accordance with the WTO's decisions in this matter."
USTR's rather, ahem, spirited response to Antigua's plan retaliation plan indicates that the tiny island may have finally hit a nerve.  And, regardless of whether Antigua will go through with its plan, this all leaves me wondering how many other WTO Members who are on the smelly-end of US (or EU or...) non-compliance have already started devising their own IPR schemes.  I would think that at least a few are considering it, given that (i) these countries can implement a "file sharing" service relatively easily (a big change from when cross retaliation was first conceived); (ii) compared to retaliatory tariffs, such schemes won't cost them or their citizens a penny; and (iii) as Brazil's and Antigua's experiences demonstrate, this approach seems to drive the United States government into an instant tizzy (or make Washington far more amenable to compliance and/or "technical assistance").

Given the large number of disputes in which the non-compliant United States is involved, this could all get quite serious quite quickly, don't you think?  And if it does, WTO compliance might just become a little more common - a good thing for free traders and consumers around the world.

Of course, this rosy scenario assumes that the WTO's big dogs don't just start offering more taxpayer-funded "technical assistance" to avoid IPR-related retaliation or take even more drastic action against the WTO system itself.

Hmm.  On second thought....

UPDATE: AEI's Claude Barfield emails with some excellent perspective: "[Y]ou could have added the irony that it was the US back in the 1990s that insisted that cross-retaliation be added to the arsenal of tools... we argued that was needed because in some cases merely raising tariff wouldn’t bring miscreant to heel."  Claude's right: a quick Google search finds John Croome's book on the history of the WTO's Uruguay Round, which describes the United States' "ambitious proposal" on cross retaliation. Adding to that irony is the fact that, according to Croome, the US proposal was most vehemently opposed by the very developing countries who now stand to benefit from using it today.  And to thicken the irony even more, I'd be remiss not to mention that it was - and remains - the United States government who most aggressively demands the inclusion of IPR disciplines in WTO and bilateral/regional FTA rules. 

I know hindsight's 20/20 and all (especially considering that rapid online filesharing was pretty much science fiction in the 1980s and early 90s), but that's gotta sting a little, don't you think?

1 comment:

Steve Craven said...

Barfield is correct, Scott. I was one of the U.S. negotiating team on dispute settlement in the Tokyo Round. Our toughest job was to build a system strong enough to make countries comply with the rules and "cross-retaliation" was one of the concepts we explored. As I recall, the idea was eventually killed by those in Washington who feared that other countries might actually be able to retaliate against the United States. Perish the thought!