A New U.S. Global Policy in Communications

We have finally recognized that the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)--a U.S. based corporation with unlimited power to set all the names and numbers for the internet all over the world--is disagreeable to too many other nations also dependent on the Internet .

Now, something new, an international body controlled by all governments, global corporations and non-governmental organizations will be assuming its function.

This makes a lot of people nervous--particularly many international corporations-- but it gives America the opportunity to launch global initiatives that foster cooperation and consensus on global communication policies to solve global problems no one individual country can solve itself such as terrorism, education, health care and a sustainable earth.

Moreover, as nations around the world awaken to the importance of creating a robust communications infrastructure, they should be less dependent and less willing to accept what has been considered a one-way flow of information and communications goods and services from the United States.

This undoubtedly places a greater burden on U.S. policy makers to pursue the basic idea of a free, unregulated, unrestricted flow of news, entertainment and information. Clearly trade in information goods and services and the future of journalism itself face new challenges.

Just a few years ago UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, adopted a treaty promoting or recognizing cultural identity. The Motion Picture Association of America among others in the industry opposed the U.S.'s support of the resolution. The U.S. stood alone, along with Israel, in opposing the cultural treaty on the grounds that it would be used for trade purposes to block the importation of American information and entertainment products, which constitute a major percentage of U.S. exports.

This concern about the "free flow" of information across borders is certainly not new. Most recently, in the late '70s and early '80s, the term "The New World Information Order" was part of the debate by the MacBride Commission -- named after Nobel Prize winner Sean MacBride, chairman of the panel -- whose concern, then as now, is that the current flow of information and communications heavily favored the U.S.

The developing countries were expressing their frustration with what they were calling a form of electronic colonialism with the U.S., indeed the Western world, dominating media flow. In protest, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, among other countries, withdrew from UNESCO in the '80s and rejoined a few years ago.

Despite the concerns expressed by the McBride Commission report and the call for a New World Information Order, the report's concern with concentration and commercialization, and what it felt was unequal access to information and communications, has not changed significantly. The commission's call for a "strengthening of national media to avoid dependence on external sources" has had some success, and as noted earlier, many countries are now focusing on developing a robust communications media unique to their national economy and culture.

However, the concern with the U.S.'s dominance of media flow does not extend to the developing nations alone. Indeed, in the mid-'70s France published a treatise called "The Computerization of Society" written by the then-secretary of the Treasury, Simon Nora and co-authored by his assistant Alain Minc, which called for a way of taxing information flows as well as information assets.

France and much of Europe subsequently developed privacy laws to control the flow of all data -- they called it "name-linked data" -- under the guise of protecting privacy. Such laws applied to both persons and corporations and severely threatened the free flow of trade and commerce and we saw recently that our piracy laws, or the lack of them, have caused Europe to threaten that US corporations might no longer collect data within European boundaries.

All this may seem arcane and distant to the average American. Perhaps too little has been said or written about these issues. Perhaps most Americans don't care or simply trust the UN system. Yet unless the U.S. has a plan to negotiate and establish global polices which satisfy the worldwide hunger for the bold new future promised by the growing Internet, our own future may be in peril.