GATS and the Threat
to Libraries

First, some background...

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international body which seeks to eliminate “trade barriers” through privatization and competition. Its activities may result in the eventual elimination of the public sector. The WTO is very much alive despite the events in Seattle.

The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is the first ever set of multilateral legally-enforceable rules covering international trade in services. Services include a wide range of activities such as public health institutions, public education, social services, and public libraries.

The Canadian government has neither informed nor consulted widely the public about its position on the WTO and the GATS. Only very specialized consultations have been held.

The WTO “dispute panels” for resolving disputes meet secretly, do not allow witnesses or experts and do not follow normal court procedures. Amazingly, their rulings can override national courts and parliaments.

The WTO is designed to limit the powers of sub-national governments (provincial,   regional, local) in countries with a federal system. The GATS will limit local and provincial purchasing and economic development policies.

In Canada, local governments provide most of the financial support for public libraries.


Now, what could GATS mean to your library?

Proposed changes to GATS will open all aspects of the economy to foreign competition, including libraries.

GATS is being expanded from a bottom-up agreement which requires all services covered in the Agreement to be listed, to a top-down agreement where all services are included unless specifically exempted. Libraries will be included in the Agreement unless we convince the federal government to negotiate an explicit and specific exemption.

It is important that anyone who cares about libraries in Canada learns more about the potential effects of GATS and why this exemption must be sought. And anyone who is concerned about democracy insist that the federal government consult more widely and openly with the people of Canada about what and how they are negotiating on our behalf.

One clause, “national treatment”, means any foreign for-profit library service or supplier could claim the same subsidies given to public libraries in order to compete with them. The likely result is that governments could withdraw any funding for libraries.


And, fewer voices lead to fewer choices...

Publishers and other producers and distributors of Canadian information and content may lose subsidies and trade protection.

Distinctive regional voices and minority perspectives will be eliminated. As a result of a few companies dominating all areas of publishing, news and entertainment, fewer and fewer voices will be heard.

New forms of copyright, including digital copyright, will vastly increase the powers of companies to restrict access to information to only those who can afford to “pay per byte”.

Libraries are worth
fighting for!

Libraries are a unique democratic organization dedicated to providing the broadest range of information and ideas to the public regardless of age, religion, social status, race, gender or language.

Many organizations, including some provinces and municipalities, are fighting the WTO and GATS. Libraries should join this effort.

What you can do:

Voice your opposition to the expansion of GATS, ask for an explicit exemption for libraries and cultural organizations, and work for the protection of the broadly defined public sector in Canada.

Write to your municipal, provincial/territorial and federal representatives.

Learn more about how international trade agreements affect libraries and other organizations and sectors.

Inform the public. Purchase materials on the subject for your library. Develop programmes and displays.

Attend and organize workshops and information sessions.

Ask your library or library association to write a resolution or otherwise express its concerns.
Find out more:
International Federation of Library Associations’ position on WTO Treaty Negotiations
Public Citizen Global Trade Watch, includes publications like
“Citizen’s Guide to the WTO”
Click on “Campaigns” and/or “Publications” for the Council of Canadians’ point of view on trade talks
Reports on the WTO from Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Full text of GATS agreement
Includes examples of resolutions and position
papers by library and other organizations
Corporate Watch’s work with others, particularly cultural, education and health organizations, to protect and promote the value of a strong public sector