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The regulation of international communication was launched in Paris, in 1863, at a conference convened to lay the foundation of an international postal system (Hamelink 1994, Mattelart 1996). For most of the next century, the regulation of international communication focused mainly on providing a few basic rules to ensure that communication resources could be used nationally, according to the goals and capacities of individual nation-states, and only minimally on relations between states. But the assumption that communication was a national aﬀair requiring a minimum of international coordination disappeared with the emergence of a global communication environment in which communication technologies pay increasingly less attention to national borders. In the twenty-ﬁrst century, any discussion of communication regulation has to be placed in an international context; thus, it is increasingly pertinent to speak of the international regulation of communication.
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1. The History Of Regulation Of International Communication
In any ﬁeld of endeavor, regulation implies recognition of a problem to be solved by authorities in a position to propose and eventually implement a solution. In the ﬁeld of communication, regulation has typically sought to deal with issues involving the need to harmonize technical standards, allocate scarce resources, and ensure that at least a substantial portion of these resources is used in the interest of the common good.
The invention of the telegraph placed these issues on the international diplomatic agenda during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The world’s ﬁrst permanent intergovernmental organization, the International Telegraph Union, was set up in 1865 to provide a framework for development of international telegraph and telegram services and the issue was problematic enough to spawn a spate of international conferences in Paris (1865), Vienna (1868), Rome (1872), and St. Petersburg (1875), resulting in a series of conventions regulating international telegraphy. Telegraph communication introduced a new set of challenges to national sovereignty, as signals paid no attention to national borders. However, the telegraph was still reliant on cable connections and these, of course, were territorially based. With hindsight, it may be said that regulating telegraphy was a relatively simple matter compared with what was yet to come.
The problem took on its modern face when wireless radio communication came on the scene at the turn of the twentieth century. Wireless radio made communication possible between any two points, provided that two conditions were met: each party had to be equipped with an appropriate apparatus and both had to be tuned to the same wavelength or frequency. Each of these conditions raised an important issue that soon required international regulation.
In 1901, a ship carrying Prince Henry of Prussia ran into diﬃculty oﬀ the coast of England. Its call for help was heard by a Marconi company receiving station on the Isle of Wight, which refused to forward it because of a company policy limiting dealings to ships equipped with Marconi transmitters. Prince Henry’s ship, unfortunately, was outﬁtted with a rival German company’s apparatus. The incident led to an international conference in Berlin in 1903, the essential purpose of which was to break the Marconi company’s attempt to set up a worldwide monopoly in wireless radiotelegraphy.
It soon became clear that eﬀective use of the ‘air’ would require some kind of prescription of the use of certain wavelengths for certain purposes, but it would be another 30 years before such a system was put in place. A more substantial conference—31 governments as opposed to eight—followed in 1906, and culminated in the ﬁrst International Radiotelegraph Convention. The treaty opened ship-to-ship and shipto-shore communication for the ﬁrst time, obliging operators to exchange messages irrespective of their corporate aﬃliation. A subsequent conference in London in 1912 reﬁned the treaty.
By the 1920s, a new and hitherto unexpected use of the new technology had appeared. Taking their lead from amateur operators, entrepreneurs in the budding US electronics industry realized that ordinary folk could be interested in acquiring radio receivers provided that some kind of attractive listening content were made available. The broadcasting industry was born, and with it a whole new set of international regulatory issues.
The main technical challenge to broadcasting was ﬁnding a way to organize the use of a radio spectrum characterized by scarcity: there were a limited number of wavelengths suitable for transmission and reception, and too many people, governments and companies who felt they had something to say (or sell). Within national jurisdictions this could be handled by licensing the use of the spectrum to speciﬁc parties. Diﬀerent countries each had their own criteria for doing this. In most of Western Europe and the British Dominions, for example, licensing favored national public service broadcasting monopolies such as the BBC. In the USA, most of the broadcasting spectrum was licensed to privately owned commercial stations. However, regardless of the use to which broadcasting would be put in various countries, an overall international framework had to be put in place before national broadcast regulation could be eﬀective at all.
With the rapid spread of radio broadcasting to multiple uses, including commercial entertainment, authorities feared the result of chaotic traﬃc jams unless a modicum of order were applied at the international level. In October 1927, representatives of some 70 countries (and 40 communication companies) convened in Washington at the behest of the US government to discuss the matter. US President Calvin Coolidge, opening the conference, declared that, ‘An instrument of such far-reaching magnitude, fraught with so great a power for good to humanity, naturally requires national and international regulation and control … In many ﬁelds our country claims the right to be the master of its own independent development. It cordially concedes the same right to all others. But in the radio ﬁeld the most complete development, both at home and abroad, lies in mutual concession and cooperation. Your main endeavor will be to discover the rules which will be for the mutual advantage of all those who are connected with this great industry and who are the users of this means of communication.’
The conference’s main order of business was to allocate spectrum use to diﬀerent classes of activity: military, commercial shipping, broadcasting, etc. Rather than divide the spectrum among countries, it would be divided by group; all nations would be free to use the spectrum for the purposes thus decided, regulating national use accordingly. Further regulation might be necessary at the regional level, e.g., North America. But regulation would begin at the international level and everything would ﬂow from that.
Categories of spectrum use were thus deﬁned in a set of General Regulations annexed to the International Radiotelegraph Convention. A subsequent conference in Madrid in 1932 further reﬁned the regulations and merged wireless and conventional telegraphy in one association, to be known as the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU. The term telecommunication has since evolved to encompass any form of distance communication—telephone, radio, telegraph, television—and more recently satellite, computer and Internet communication. Each of these technologies has added its own speciﬁc twist to the complexity of the international regulation of communication.
2. Towards The International Regulation Of Communication
The regulation of international communication changed in character after the Second World War, with the emergence of the United Nations system of multilateral organizations (Schiller 1969). As we have seen, the oldest of these, the International Telecommunication Union, traces its lineage to 1865. However, an important change in quality was introduced in the immediate post-War period as international agreements began to deal with not only international but also domestic issues. A wide range of new issues, from trade to human rights, now came into play.
The immediate post-War period brought with it a new era in international communication. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underscored the right to freedom of information. UNESCO, created in 1946, undertook a series of activities which have been crucial to developing an understanding of the links between communication and culture and their importance for human development. New regional bodies such as the Council of Europe have included communication in their sphere of concern, through periodic resolutions on speciﬁc themes and issues.
At the same time, communication issues began to crop up in the wake of the new economic multilateralism that ﬂowed from the Bretton Woods agreements and creation of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The ﬁrst General Agreement on Tarifs and Trade in 1947 was the setting for a vigorous debate that culminated in the acceptance of foreign ﬁlm import quotas, notwithstanding the GATT’s general thrust towards liberalization of national markets. The extent to which cultural ‘products’ constitute a speciﬁc type of commodity requiring its own set of international trade rules has been a constant feature of multilateral and regional trade negotiations since that time.
The question of national sovereignty over communication took on a new color in the political and technological context of the 1960s and 1970s, with the emergence of dozens of new postcolonial states and the development of satellite technologies making it possible to transmit sound and images irrespective of national borders (Smythe 1981). The unequal ﬂow of information content from north to south and the increasing importance of technological resources led, conceptually, to the articulation of a ‘cultural imperialism’ thesis and, politically, to eﬀorts to create a ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ (Tomlinson 1991, Galtung and Vincent 1993). These issues were highlighted by publication, in 1980, of the report of a UNESCO commission chaired by Irish jurist and human rights activist Sean MacBride (UNESCO 1980) and the subsequent withdrawal from UNESCO of the USA, UK, and Singapore. Meanwhile, with far less fanfare, an ITU report of the same period documented the unequal distribution of technical resources for communication worldwide (International Telecommunication Union 1984).
UNESCO has since adopted a more low-key communication strategy, emphasizing the training of communication professionals and development of media institutions in the ‘transitional’ states of central Europe, Africa and Asia. In 1995, however, a UN UNESCO World Commission on Culture and Development published a major report which brought many of the lingering issues back on the table, with an updated analysis (United Nations UNESCO 1995).
Meanwhile, the collapse of the Berlin Wall made it possible to extend the development of a global communication system under the hegemony of the western alliance. Cultural and communication goods and services were consistently integrated to the international trade agreements of the 1990s, despite the resistance of countries with strong traditions of national regulation in these areas, such as Canada and France. Under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, an open global market in telecommunications is emerging—paradoxically, one in which, through a raft of mergers, there are fewer and fewer players. Foreign ownership and content regulations are increasingly under attack and threatened with extinction in blueprints for the future such as the aborted Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), an initiative of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that failed to crystallize in 1998. Experiences such as the MAI and the heavily contested Millenium Round of the WTO which opened in Seattle in December 1999 illustrate the highly politicized nature of international regulation in general. Communication, however, is not only an object of such regulation, it is also in many respects the catalyst for it.
Generally, the social science study of the regulation of international communication has developed along parallel lines with the area itself. For many decades it occupied, at best, a sleepy corner in the study of international relations. Still a relatively sparse ﬁeld, it has grown substantially since the late 1960s, however, with the emergence of a wide range of critical studies in mass communication. A seminal work in this regard was Herbert Schiller’s (1969) Mass Communication and American Empire. Throughout the 1970s, the work of scholars such as Armand Mattelart, Cees Hamelink, Hamid Mowlana and Kaarle Nordenstreng began to shape a more general ﬁeld of international communication, which broadly focused on the previously mentioned ‘new world order’ debates centered within UNESCO. Issues such as inequality in east–west and north–south information ﬂows and the absence or inadequacy of international regulatory mechanisms were often highlighted by this scholarship.
More recently, a younger generation of communication scholars has begun paying attention to international regulatory issues in the context of broader debates on globalization and global governance. This interest has generated a wide range of institutional studies of organizations such as the ITU and, especially, the WTO, from the perspective of international regulation of communication. The trend towards international media conglomerization and the spread of new global communications technologies such as the Internet have also led to more scholarly focus on international regulatory issues such as access and copyright. Much of this scholarship is policyoriented and has a strong normative thrust.
3. The International Regulation Of Communication In A World Of Trade
Since the late 1980s and particularly in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it is fair to say that a new global communication environment has been taking shape. From a regulatory perspective, this environment is characterized by the fact that, unlike in previous eras, there is no discernible center. Rules continue to be made at the national and regional level but these are increasingly impacted and constrained by supranational agreements.
Multilateralism is clearly one of the central trends in global governance; but diﬀerent players have diﬀerent stakes and, consequently, need diﬀerent strategies for intervening in a political system based on multilateral relations. In this context, even large powers are recognizing the need for global coordination and regulation in order to create the state of order necessary for the ﬂourishing of their interests. Thus, for example, at the turn of the century the European Union and the USA were each ﬂoating proposals for some kind of formal regulatory framework to govern global communication.
The need to provide some kind of stability to the context in which the Internet was developing lay at the heart of the matter. Paradoxically, over the rhetorical claims of users and entrepreneurs alike, this most open and freewheeling communication technology was crying out for the institution of an orderly governance framework—much as radio had a century earlier.
The urgency of such a project was driven home in September 1999 when CEOs of the world’s most important communication companies met in Paris to discuss the global regulation of electronic commerce. The Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce, or GBDe as the group is known, urged governments and international organizations to coordinate their regulatory eﬀorts regarding the Internet, which it described as a global medium requiring a global policy approach. This is but one example of the regulatory challenges facing the emerging global communications environment.
Indeed, the powerful technology of the Internet has exacerbated many old problems related to communication policy at the national level while introducing new ones globally. Oddly, national regulators are tending towards abandoning attempts to regulate the Internet, just as the global issues it raises cry out for some kind of transnational regulatory intervention (see ‘Regulating the Internet’ 2000).
The example of the Internet illustrates that while most of the debate around questions of communication regulation still pit the market against the state, the issues are increasingly international. In the case of the Internet, it has been suggested (Mathiason and Kuhlman 1999) that we should be moving towards an international framework convention, which would articulate basic norms of how the Internet is to be governed and establish a mechanism for monitoring compliance with those norms and determining future changes. A framework convention would be diﬀerent from a treaty-based regime such as the one pertaining in trade under the auspices of the WTO. Its task would be to sort out the roles and responsibilities of the various national, international and private actors involved in the development of this ‘global enabling technology’. It would need to be negotiated, these authors suggest, on the basis that the Internet is part of the global commons. This type of proposal clearly depends on a broad consensus of what communication is about. It can only hope to work to the extent that communication technology is recognized as a public good. In other words, the normative view one takes about something like the Internet is much more important in determining the limits and possibilities of regulation than the nature of the technology or the policymaking capacity of the state. Debates surrounding the normative deﬁnition of communication technologies are therefore a key prerequisite to any attempt at international regulation in this area.
4. Models For Regulation And A Global Approach To Communication
There are at least four models that can be identiﬁed with respect to the international regulation of communication:
(a) The libertarian model: no regulation. With the new digital technologies such as the Internet, this is the approach that is being taken by most national regulators (Australia’s being an important exception), mainly because they do not know what to do or how to do it. It is also largely favored by grassroots activists who are beneﬁting from the system’s present openness. However, the history of communication technologies shows that left to its own devices, this open access is not likely to last. A libertarian model of Internet governance will likely lead eventually to closed doors, restricted access, and limited communication.
(b) Self-regulation: this is the approach most often favored by industry players, with the encouragement of national regulators. It is presented as the solution to problems such as abusive content and the protection of rights, on the argument that consumers will respond if they are not satisﬁed. However, as we saw with the example of the GBDe, even the promoters of self-regulation recognize the need for a global structural framework for communication activity, within which industry self-regulation would take place.
(c) The closed club, or top-down institutional model: where plans are negotiated in organizations such as the OECD, G7, or WTO, as well as in the new institutions emerging as the corporate sector ﬁlls the vacuum created by the retreat of national governments from regulatory issues. One such agency is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private organization set up at the initiative of the US government in 1998 for the purpose of directing traﬃc on the Internet.
(d) The long march through the institutions: a process that is tied to the broader project of democratization of global governance, reﬂected in some of the initiatives around UN reform and in notions such as ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ (Archibugi et al. 1998). Access to global policymaking is being fostered to some extent by some important initiatives in multilateral agencies such as UNESCO and the ITU which have demonstrated some sensitivity to the concerns of civil society and the inclusion of NGO representation in their activities.
The international regulation of communication can also be seen as part of a larger sphere of intervention encompassing other aspects of policy. By thinking about a global public policy approach to communication it becomes possible to begin addressing a whole range of issues for ensuring the public interest in communication globally, such as the following:
(a) regulation of commercial activities in the public interest, to guarantee equitable access and basic services;
(b) funding and institutional support for the creation and sustaining of public service and alternative media;
(c) placing limits on corporate controls resulting from transnational concentration of ownership in new and conventional media and telecommunications;
(d) guarantees of access to available media channels on the basis of public interest criteria;
(e) development of universal codes and standards for curtailing the spread of abusive contents;
(f) facilitating networking capacity through communication technologies of not-for-proﬁt organizations; and
(g) provision of public communication spaces for conﬂict resolution and democratic dialogue on global issues.
Before this can happen, however, credibility will need to be given to the idea that the global communication environment, from the conventional airwaves to outer space, is a public resource, to be organized, managed and regulated in the global public interest. Broadening access will require appropriate transnational regulatory mechanisms, in addition to mechanisms for a more equitable distribution of global commercial beneﬁts. From a perspective that places high priority on the importance of the public interest obligations of communication systems, there is a need for the international appropriation of some air and space for distribution outside the country of origin of viable creative products that currently have no access to the global agora that ﬁgures so prominently in utopian discourses on information technology. The convergence of communication technologies requires a parallel convergence in programs and policies, and also the invention of new models, new concepts, and a general new way of thinking about communication.
In the twenty-ﬁrst century, the international regulation of communication will be an essential part of the global governance system. This indicates a need to develop democratic mechanisms for ensuring access to the regulatory process at the global level, without which it will soon be diﬃcult, if not impossible, to promote a public interest through policy intervention in any area inﬂuenced by communication.
Communication has always been linked to democratic struggles, and is increasingly relevant to thinking about broader issues such as the role of the state and human rights. In the twenty-ﬁrst century, because of the particular situation of communication in the overall environment of globalization, issues regarding the regulation of communication have an important impact on a range of related questions. The inter- national regulatory framework for communication is therefore emerging as a key structural component of the emerging global governance framework in general.
In grappling with this, it is important to see that even if it is true that we are moving towards a global society, this does not mean that there is no longer a need for regulation. The development of economic or market globalization does not in itself negate the need for rules; indeed, the new communication environment recognizes this and is constantly searching for new regulatory mechanisms appropriate to capturing and deﬁning what might be termed the global public interest.
Communication and information technologies, although of little interest in themselves, are strategically critical in eﬀorts to intervene economically on the one hand, and in the cultural sphere on the other. The regulation of communication revolves around struggles over who gets to use these technologies, under what conditions, in order to promote which projects, and in who’s interests. In the contemporary context of globalization, ‘communication’ is another way of describing the technological space at the interface of the economic and the cultural. What goes on in that space—the international regulation of communication—is thus of great import for human and social development.
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