Freedom of Information and the Rise and Decline of American Power (Part II)

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.”[1] 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.”[2] Somewhat uncomfortably joined, after the mid-1970s, by the Soviet Union and its East European allies,[3] 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].[4]  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.[5]

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.[6] 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.’”[7]

Outraged at these transgressions, US leaders determined to take back the initiative.[8] 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. 

During the last two years of the Carter Administration and the first Reagan Administration the US mounted an aggressive counter-offensive. Coordinating with Britain its withdrawal from UNESCO – the multilateral forum through which much of NAM’s efforts to forge a New Information Order had been conducted, US President Reagan charged that UNESCO had “exhibited hostility toward a free society, especially a free market and a free press.”[9] US policymakers went on to stage-manage an international debt crisis to assault the solidarities of an already fractious Non-Aligned Movement. They also shifted policymaking for computerized data flows into trade forums like the OECD and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which became the WTO). At the same time, they also dangled a carrot, in the form of new communications technology.[10] Development programs and World Bank loans placed new emphasis on modernizing information infrastructures around satellites, computers and advanced telecommunications. Contemporary critics deemed this gambit a Trojan Horse; but, alongside the pressure-tactics already mentioned, it proved effective, and the NWICO swiftly unraveled. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, moreover, privatizations of government telecommunications ministries became a standard prescription, and dozens of privatizations were accomplished.[11]  

At the mid-point of this process, meanwhile, there occurred a profound, multifaceted historical break in the global order. The Soviet Union collapsed, following the fall of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe; while China, which had realigned itself with the United States during the 1970s, reinserted itself into the global capitalist political economy during the early 1990s. Combined with the defeat of the Non-Aligned Movement’s attempt to remake economic and informational arrangements, these changes precipitously universalized the market system – offering something approaching free global rein to transnational capitalist investment and trade.

In this new historical era, the free flow of information became a general capitalist imperative. It no longer served only to protect the important but limited mass media sector.  Now it functioned in defense of transnational capital at large.  By the late 1970s, large US banks, oil companies, airlines and manufacturers were becoming reliant on transborder computer networks using leased telephone lines.[12] These relayed data not only from the US to the other countries in which the corporations possessed operations, but also from those countries back to the US: the flows of data were to this extent reciprocal. As transnational enterprises came to depend on proprietary cross-border computer networks for administration, R&D, production scheduling, inventory control, and other functions, they also confronted a new threat: not NAM’s economic redistribution but barriers and obstructions to unrestricted data flows imposed by major trading partners.  These might originate in states’ economic policies, non-tariff trade barriers, or privacy concerns. Reflecting the urgency of this general shift in emphasis, freedom of information was now often specified in terms of an overarching need to protect transborder data flows.  Symptomatically, catering for government policymakers and corporate users, a new journal named Transnational Data Report was established to provide news about issues touching on state policies and current developments in this area.

Political lobbying and high-level government oversight were constant, as the US state and big business mobilized to defend unrestricted cross-border corporate data transmission.  IBM, which operated in over 120 countries, told a US government committee in 1980 that it was “dependent on a free flow of information in order to maintain our operations worldwide.”  It was one of many US transnational companies, according to the chair of this House committee, that “today is dependent on rapid and effective data processing and telecommunications, whether directly as a user of these technologies, or indirectly through dependence on those services such as banks, to whom these technologies are vital.”[13] Throughout the 1980s there were many such hearings and a general bulking-up in state capacity to monitor and intervene in the battle to defend the free flow of corporate data across jurisdictions.[14]

The arrival of a global internet spelled a further sea-change. The internet both converged disparate and multifarious computer networks into a single infrastructure, and extended this infrastructure across the world, more or less co-extensively with the now-universal capitalist market.  Where before companies had relied on multiple, typically non-interoperable, networks to support distinct functions, now they rebuilt their systems around common internet-based protocols and applications. With its management lodged mostly in a US administrative complex, its rapidly evolving infrastructure supplied mostly by US companies, and its quickly extending global expanse, the internet constituted the most successful incarnation of the “American system of global communications” that US leaders had sought – repeatedly – since the early 20th century.[15]

In addition, and not least, the internet seemed to erase the cavernous distinction between personal and corporate computer network use. As networked PCs and eventually mobile devices proliferated, it was easy to credit that the free flow of information principally benefited individual users – when, in fact, the lion’s share of cross-border internet data flows never ceased to transpire within and between corporations. (Albeit, some of them ultimately giant search and social media conglomerates.)  In turn, during the 1990s and thereafter the internet – and the free flow of information over and through it – were sold to the citizenries of the world as a fountainhead of human rights.[16]


For more than a decade it was, for corporate network users as well as providers of commercial cultural and media services, the best of times.  With the catastrophic US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the crash of 2008-09, however, the global political economy convulsed once again – and the single cross-border internet and US free flow policy bore the strain.

[1] Kwame Nkruma, Foreword to Odinga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru, An Autobiography. Nairobi: Heineman, 1967, quoted in Shiraz Durrani, Two Paths Ahead: The Ideological Struggle between Capitalism and Socialism in Kenya, 1960-1970. Nairobi: Vita Books, 2023: vi..

[2] Quoted in Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015: 182.

[3] Friedman, Shadow Cold War: 180-214.

[4] Breda Pavlic and Cees J. Hamelink, The New International Economic Order: Links between Economics and Communications. Reports and Papers on Mass Communication.  Paris: Unesco, 1985.

[5] Herbert I. Schiller, “Freedom from the ‘Free Flow,’” Journal of Communication, 24 (10), March 1974: 110-17.

[6] Kaarle Nordenstreng, The Mass Media Declaration of UNESCO.  Norwood: Ablex. 

[7] Many Voices, One World: Towards a New, More Just, and More Efficient World Information and Communication Order. Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems (The MacBride Commission).  Paris: UNESCO, 1980. Foreword xviii; 36 (also see 39).

[8] For further elaboration of the remainder of this section, see “Transborder Data Flows,” Information Observatory December 6, 2015.

[9] In Edward Helmore, “US set to rejoin Unesco after leaving during Trump presidency, The Guardian 1 July 2023.  The US rejoined UNESCO in 2002; pulled out again under Donald Trump in 2017; and rejoined again in 2023 under Joe Biden – in a bid to counter China’s influence in the organization.  On the original withdrawal, William Preston, Jr., Edward S. Herman and Herbert I. Schiller, Hope & Folly: The United States and UNESCO 1945-1985. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1989.

[10] Herbert I Schiller, Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500.  Norwood: Ablex, 1981: 16-18; Herbert I. Schiller, “Is There A United States Information Policy?” in Preston, Herman and Schiller, Eds.,Hope & Folly: 299-303.

[11] Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

[12] Richard H. Veith, Multinational Computer Nets.  Lexington: Lexington Books, 1981.

[13] Statement of John Rankine, Director of Standards, Products Safety and Data Security, IBM Corp., in U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, 96th Cong. 2d Sess, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, March 10, 13, 27; and April 21, 1980, On International Data Flow.  Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1980: 3; and Hon. Richardson Preyer in Ibid.: 2.

[14] For an early treatment see Dan Schiller, Telematics and Government.  Norwood: Ablex, 1982: 122-37.

[15] Dan Schiller, Crossed Wires: The Conflicted History of US Telecommunications, From the Post Office to the Internet.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2023: 522-93.

[16] Dan Schiller, Digital Depression: Information Technology and Economic Crisis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014: 162-4.

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