Thou shall not obfuscate

15 December 2005

If you can bear to, follow me to Annex C, Paragraph 7b of the latest General Agreement on Trade in Services draft text for the Hong Kong WTO ministerial. Here we learn that any group of member states can make a request to any other group for the latter to open their markets in certain services. (I know this is unconscionably dry, but bear with me). Those members "shall enter into plurilateral negotiations to consider such requests".

This has suddenly become the most contentious paragraph of the text, and has fuelled a toothy semantic debate on the meaning of the word "shall". Poor countries have gone so far as to draft an entirely new test, fearing that this "shall" is a sneaky way of the EU achieving its thinly veiled goal of carving open water and banking markets.

Alan Johnson, Britain's head of delegation, says he has consulted a dictionary. "Shall is the same as should,” he concludes, rather unusually.

One seasoned unionist reckons that the EU's protestations that the new GATS deal would still be voluntary are theologically unsound.

"As an atheist, I have trouble understanding Christians," he says. "But am I now to take it from the EU that the word 'shall' is nothing more than a suggestion? If so, is the fifth commandment to be rewritten: 'Not killing people is something you might like to consider.'"

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals

To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.

By adding my name to this campaign, I authorise openDemocracy and Foxglove to keep me updated about their important work.

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