Decolonization became an irresistible force throughout Africa and Asia during the 1950s and 1960s. However, as Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana – the first sub-Saharan state to attain independence (1957) – declared in the year he was deposed in a coup (1966), “Although political independence is a noble achievement in the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism, its effectiveness is superficial unless economic and cultural independence is also achieved.” A Non-Aligned Movement grew, among dozens of newly decolonized states, joined by some Latin American countries. At its Third Summit, convened in Zambia in 1970, Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere announced that “the real and urgent threat to the independence of almost all nonaligned states thus comes not from the military, but from the economic power of the big states.” Somewhat uncomfortably joined, after the mid-1970s, by the Soviet Union and its East European allies, and finding support from some western European countries, the NAM sought comprehensive redistribution. Its demand was for a New International Economic Order. An outgrowth of this NIEO was a focused effort to establish a New International Information Order or, as it was sometimes called, a New World Information and Communication Order [NWICO]. Opposition to the US-centric system of international communications and the free-flow policies that helped sustain it attained a charged intensity in this context. “Freedom from the ‘free flow’” had become a necessity, declared Herbert I. Schiller, an engaged analyst of the prevailing inequitable system.
For NWICO advocates, imbalances and disparities needed to be inventoried across their range. Then they needed to be addressed – remedied. Through continuing and often well-publicized research and a succession of international conferences, both sometimes supported by or connected to UNESCO, and in votes at the United Nations General Assembly, the United States was placed on the defensive in communications and information. An influential commission convened in 1977 by UNESCO to study global communications problems reported three years later that it had been “convinced that structural changes in the field of communication are necessary and that the existing order is unacceptable to all.” In keeping with NWICO’s redistributionist precepts, the report went on to assert that “the obvious imbalances in communication supported the view that ‘free flow’ was nothing more than ‘one-way flow’, and that the principle on which it was based should be restated so as to guarantee “free and balanced flow.’”
Outraged at these transgressions, US leaders determined to take back the initiative. This was not only because the interests they represented benefited from the inequitable status quo, but also because the NAM’s NWICO threatened to obstruct US transnational corporations’ project of innovating a powerful new communications technology – computer networking. Cross-border (and still mostly proprietary) computer networks were crucial to enabling an audacious corporate reintegration. The state-mobilizations that helped sustain NWICO were set to collide with this capital-led program, which would later be called “globalization.” Something had to give.