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

Before turning to the stresses that threaten the free flow of contemporary international communications, it is vital to conduct a brief review of today’s cross-border cultural services and data flows.  As we saw, the US derived great ideological and market advantages during the postwar decades from free flowing press and media exports. Yet these pale in comparison to the immensity of today’s flows. Thus the US dependence on the free flow of information is greater than ever before. The domains that fall under the doctrine’s purview have in fact not only expanded, but also diversified.

Today there exist substantial and vigorous media businesses headquartered beyond US borders.  Between 2003 and 2012, Brazil’s exports of cultural services leapt from $195 million to $1 billion; India’s from $108 million to $487 million.  Between 2007 and 2012, South Korea’s cultural services exports jumped from $1.5 billion to $3.2 billion; between 2006 and 2012, Turkey’s increased from $1 billion to $1.2 billion. Throughout Western Europe national commercial media constitute strong conglomerate enterprises; the largest exporter, France, saw its exports rise from $1.5 billion in 2003 to $9.9 billion in 2012.[1] Increasingly significant and multifarious flows of cultural services have accompanied this growth.  Yet two striking structural continuities also are evident.

First, unbroken US supremacy. Between 2003 and 2012, US exports of cultural services increased from $36 billion to $69 billion. No other country came close to this total. And this still understates the extent of US dominance, in that there exists considerable US foreign direct investment in the cultural industries of other exporting nations.

Second, although exports of cultural goods and services doubled between 2005/6 and 2019, according to another UNESCO report, “the participation of developing countries in global flows of cultural goods has stagnated.” Meanwhile, “developed countries continue to dominate the trade in cultural services – accounting for an average of 95% of total exports. More specifically, the Least Developed Countries represent less than 0.5% of the global cultural goods trade, while in the international trade of cultural services, they are invisible. Foreign Direct Investment also remains disproportionately in favour of developed countries.” For this reason, the author concludes, the global flow of cultural goods and services remains “a one-way street.”[2]  Although today the US is joined by a scattering of other wealthy nations in the export of culture, the Global South possesses virtually no presence in this domain.

Data flows among and between corporations, especially US-headquartered transnational corporations, have become fundamental to the minute-to-minute functioning of these organizations.  The several thousand transnational companies that control 30% of global production and 80% of world trade are repeatedly rebuilding themselves around digital structures and dynamics; worldwide IT spending was forecast to increase to $4.6 trillion in 2023.[3] Smartphones, sensors, probes and a welter of other data-generating devices are implanting connectivity into every pore of the political economy, while intermediate commercial services and AI are booming contributors to data traffic.[4]

Finally, capital has developed some major new features on the landscape of culture and information: social media, or “content provider,” and cloud computing companies have taken the world by storm since the turn of the millennium. As subsea cable investment has spiked, to carry the data traffic these new services generate, the profile of demand for these distribution facilities has altered radically. An industry report explains: “Historically, it’s been carrier networks, provisioning public internet services. More recently a handful of major content and cloud service providers— namely Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon, and Microsoft—have become the primary sources of demand. These companies are the dominant users of international bandwidth, accounting for 69% of all used international capacity in 2021.”  (It is even greater today.) Even as overall utilization of subsea cables experienced double-digit percentage increases, however, demand for telecommunications capacity remained uneven.  To link their data centers and interconnection points on core routes, notably the trans-Atlantic, these companies required tremendous and ever-escalating capacity; but elsewhere their requirements – while still growing – were less.[5]

Taking account of all these factors, we might think that freedom of information should continue to operate as a premier US policy, just as it has for eighty years.  There is, however, another – and an all-important – consideration:  the status of the worldwide system of information distribution.  How are financial, corporate, social media, cloud, and audiovisual services transported?  How do they move from and to the United States? Today, as everyone knows, they depend overwhelmingly on the internet both for global and national distribution and, as well, increasingly for retail delivery to consumers.

And just here – in the cross-border internet – is where free flow adherents confront mounting difficulty.  The arrangements that govern flows across this colossal distribution system have entered a period of flux and spiraling structural conflict.

[1] Statistics from UNESCO Institute for Statistics, The Globalisation of Cultural Trade: A Shift in Consumption. International Flows of Cultural Goods and Services, 2004-2013. Table S1. Total value of exports of cultural services, 2003-2012.  Montreal: Unesco Institute for Statistics, 2016: 172-173.

[2] Lydia Deloumeaux, “Global flow of cultural goods and services: still a one-way trade,” Chapter Six in UNESCO, Re/Shaping Policies for Creativity Report: Addressing Culture as a Global Public Good.

[3]  “Gartner forecasts worldwide IT spending to grow 5.1% in 2023,” Press Release October 19, 2022.

[4] Martin Wolf, “Globalisation is not dying, it’s changing,” FT September 13, 2022; Dan Schiller, Digital Depression: Information Technology and Economic Crisis.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014: 240-45; Dan Schiller and Shinjoung Yeo, “Powered By Google: Widening Access and Tightening Corporate Control,” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 20 (1), 2014: 44-57.

[5] TeleGeography, The State of the Network 2023 Edition. Washington, D.C. TeleGeography, February 2023: 4.

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