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.


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. 


For a special summer post, IO is releasing a four part series on the free flow of information doctrine. This is the first in the series.


With little public notice, a foundation-stone of US global power has begun to crumble. The US free flow of information doctrine rose to dominance during World War II. Though repeatedly challenged, it enjoyed international supremacy for eighty years. Now, however, its hold is finally slipping. To clarify this vital change requires historical elaboration.

The US press became an advertiser-based big business only over the course of the 19th century.  As this occurred, the nation’s leading newspapers embraced a narrow libertarian reading of the protection they gained from the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stated, simply, that Congress should make no law abridging the freedom of the press. If, on one side, this did not preclude government press subsidies then, on the other side, neither did it disallow the possibility that municipalities or states or other communities might impose public responsibilities on the press. Publishers were eager to avail themselves of subsidies, such as massively reduced postal rates for transmission of newspapers through the mails. However, they roundly rejected community responsibilities. Thus, they insisted on an essentially self-serving interpretation: press freedom meant no government interference in their business and editorial affairs – leaving publishers free to pursue their own ownership, political and social class interests.   

Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century, individual newspapers consolidated into increasingly extensive chains. During the 1930s came other salient industry developments.  Newspapers took cross-ownership interests in radio stations. Film studios began to provide regular sound newsreels for screening by the nation’s cinemas. Weekly magazines led by Time, Newsweek, and Life became highly successful news purveyors. Television was being rapidly innovated. All this signified that the working definition of “the press” had come to encompass the media system at large.[1]

By the outbreak of World War II, this multi-media US press – alongside the news agencies that gathered and distributed much of its content – became intent on (additional) global expansion.[2]  Trade groups were organized to accomplish this, under the banner of “freedom of information.” With sustained aid from high government officials, they insisted that “the free flow of information” should prevail throughout the postwar world. They held aloft the banner of the US press’s libertarian conception, which still made no room for any greater social responsibility.  “Freedom of information” now harbored two overriding objectives.[3] 

World War II marked a transformational shift in the global political economy, as the United States dislodged its former capitalist rivals and labored to assert a preponderance of global power against the Soviet Union.[4] Prior to the war, the US press and media industry possessed limited access to the colonial markets controlled by the leading powers and, indeed, to the markets of the leading powers themselves. Three European news agencies – British Reuters, the French Havas, and the German Wolf – had formed a longstanding cartel with which they dominated most of the world news market and attempted to limit inroads being made by the US’s United Press and Associated Press (AP) agencies.[5] US films and recordings enjoyed much greater market access, but they still faced restrictions.


This post is based on a talk on the panel titled Venturing China’s Globalized Internet at the 2023 International Communication Association. (ICA) preconference. The panel was organized by the contributors of recently published books on the political economy of China’s internet giants: Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent in the Global Media Giants book series. I revised my original talk to provide a little more context drawing from my 2022 book Baidu: Geopolitical Dynamics of the Internet in China. Baidu was primarily a search engine company, but it has diversified its business into artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-driven industrial sectors including self-driving or autonomous cars (AVs), Electric Vehicles (EVs), cloud computing, smart devices etc.

Today, it is extremely challenging to engage in a reasonable debate about the tech sector related to China – a major geopolitical flesh point between the US and China. In the Western mainstream media, the discussions are persistently framed under the themes of national security, spying, censorship, human rights, and authoritarianism vs liberal democracy, but these narrow and self-interested analytical frameworks obfuscate the underlying pollical economy of the Chinese internet industry which is deeply integrated into the US-led global capitalist order.  

In turn, the often-used term “decoupling” needs to be handled carefully. “Decoupling” actually is embedded with a longer process of coupling. The Chinese search giant Baidu, which represents the internet industry in China, sheds light on this decades-long enmeshment – and its implications for current capitalist dynamics. Thus, I’ll talk about Baidu in the context of coupling, geopolitical competition, and “decoupling.”