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Antigua Forms Implementation Committee, Plans to Collect WTO Online Gambling Judgment from US

wto-logoThe decade-old World Trade Organization dispute between the United States and the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda over online gambling has flared up again this week, with Antiguan officials announcing the creation of a select government committee tasked with implementing Antigua’s outstanding $21 million judgment against the USA.

The annual $21 million judgment stems from the WTO’s decision in favor of Antigua’s complaint that the USA breached existing agreements it signed in 1997 allowing online gambling between it and other WTO member countries.  The USA later tried to back out of the agreement on moral grounds, an argument that was quickly dismissed by WTO arbitrators.

Since then, the USA has remained in violation of the WTO decision, and has refused all attempts by Antiguan officials to negotiate an alternate compensation plan, or to open the American market to online gambling.  The existing judgment, which has been accruing annually,  is to be collected via the abrogation of intellectual property rights on products such as movies, music and CD’s manufactured by American entertainment, which has been accruing since 2006.

The latest move by Antigua, which followed an affirmation by the WTO in January that the country could implement the earlier judgment, was announced by Antigua’s Attorney General, Justin Simon QC.  Simon announced that he would chair a seven-person WTO Remedies Implementation Committee (RIC) designed to create a framework for monetizing the existing judgment.

The annual judgment, with an existing balance already in excess of $150 million, would be slowly collected through the sale of copies of entertainment, for which US-based copyright protection would not be honored.  Antiguan officials have yet to announce which categories of US-created intellectual property will be targeted.

The Antiguan committee’s makeup, in addition to AG Simon, has largely been decided.  Confirmed members include:

  • Secretary, Department of Trade, Industry and Commerce, Ambassador Colin Murdoch;
  • Magistrate / Deputy Registrar of Intellectual Property Conliffe Clarke;
  • Legislative Drafter, Department of Legal Affairs, Ayesha Baisden;
  • Deputy Financial Secretary, Department of Finance, John Edwards;
  • Unnamed representative, Ministry of Telecommunications, Science, and Technology;
  • Unnamed representative, Antiguan Intellectual Property office.

The committee will also work with attorney Mark Mendel, a Houston, TX trade lawyer now living in Ireland who has represented Antigua and Barbuda’s interests in the WTO online-gambling dispute for nearly a decade.  Mendel has been an outspoken supporter of Antigua’s trade rights in the dispute and has decried the United States’ duplicity in the matter, including the passage of the 2006 UIGEA, which directly defied the WTO’s findings.

Mendel also recently decried the introduction of US Rep. Peter King’s Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection and Enforcement Act of 2013 as further proof of the United States’ bad faith in the matter, as ongoing evidence that American claims of a moral stance against gambling were themselves false.

The initial accord agreed to by Antigua, the United States, and 121 other countries was included in the “Uruguay Round” of trade-agreements negotiated as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), negotiated in the late 1980’s and revised through 1997.

Online commerce was then in its infancy, but the specific agreements covering online gaming were rolled over in the early 2000’s into the new WTO’s GATS (General Agreement on Tariffs and Services) compact, which was signed by the US, Antigua and other WTO members.

Despite receiving the judgment, declared by the WTO in late 2006 and confirmed in early 2007, the Antiguan government has long stalled on actively attempting to collect, despite the crippling effect the implementation of the UIGEA had on the island’s online gambling-dedicated economy.

One reason is that the island nation’s economy lacked a reasonable marketing base to quickly and efficiently launch the type of business operation needed to sell the copyright-abrogated property.  One private enterprise, called Zookz, launched a monthly-subscription service in July of 2009 that was purported to be part of the WTO settlement, but was quickly denounced and shut down by Antiguan authorities.

Instead, negotiations continued.  US trade officials and elected representatives met repeatedly with Antiguan officials in recent years, but instead of serious efforts to reach an alternate deal, US officials simply declared themselves to be in compliance with the WTO’s mandate, which was never true.

Finally, late last year, Antigua returned to the WTO to plead to be allowed to implement the judgment as a option of last resort.  US representatives to the WTO quickly responded by declaring Antigua’s plan as “government-authorized piracy,” and issued a warning designed to deter Antigua’s ongoing efforts.  That USA statement to the WTO included this passage:

[I]f Antigua actually proceeds with a plan for its government to authorize the theft of intellectual property, it would only serve to hurt Antigua’s own interests. Government-authorized piracy would undermine chances for a settlement that would provide real benefits to Antigua. It also would serve as a major impediment to foreign investment in the Antiguan economy, particularly in high-tech industries.

— US statement to WTO over Antigua’s plans to collect on online-gambling judgment

In this game of chicken, little Antigua continues to press its small edges.  The country’s real hope has always been that the USA will admit the error of its ways and honor its previous WTO commitments, but that’s unlikely to happen.  The latest move represents a continuing realization that political repercussions aside, implementing the judgment as is remains the tiny country’s only reasonable means to collect what’s due.

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