Russia isn’t the first country to protest Western control over global telecommunications

As the international community becomes increasingly concerned about misinformation and data breaches, the Russian government has announced plans to test its own, sweeping solution to the problem: disconnecting Russia from the global internet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that internet administration is too concentrated in the U.S., and that online misinformation campaigns threaten Russia’s national security. Reaction from the international press and tech experts has ranged from horrified to bemused, calling Russia’s behavior an act of totalitarian censorship or economic and technological recklessness.

But neither these problems nor Putin’s intended solution are particularly new. In fact, my research on the history of international telecommunications and information policy suggests that these criticisms echo – if not co-opt – a set of arguments and policy proposals based in other, less powerful nations’ historically reasonable objections about the West’s (especially the United States’) disproportionate power over international communications.

When developing states demanded global telecommunications reform after World War II, the U.S. began to evade and undermine efforts by intergovernmental organizations to manage information flows between countries. This U.S. policy, as it has unfolded over the last six decades, has played a major role in establishing the world’s current international communications system, centered on an internet that is less regulated than any of the technologies that preceded it and made it possible.

The Great Eastern laying a transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons

The origins of the international network

The international communications network originated with the telegraph. Terrestrial cables created the first national networks in the 1840s; submarine cables began traversing the Atlantic in the 1870s and by 1900 crossed the Pacific and Indian oceans. For the first time in history, communication – even to distant continents – was no longer tethered to the speed of human movement.

The international telegraph network in 1901 spanned the globe, with particular emphasis on the North Atlantic. A.B.C. Telegraphic Code 5th Edition/Malus Catulus/Wikimedia Commons
But to make a global network, states had to link their national networks together. In the 1860s, European states established the International Telegraph Union to oversee that technical work.

The ITU’s first task was to ensure that telegraph cable technologies were universally compatible, so that a message from any nation could be sent to any other nation. Second, it regulated costs and rates of network use. And after the ITU became responsible for regulating radio broadcast in the 1930s, it was tasked with assigning portions of the broadcast spectrum to states, which then distributed the frequencies among public and private radio companies.

These three tasks facilitated the movement of information that we often associate with the creation of the modern global information network.

Postwar promise

After World War II, it wasn’t just the physical equipment of international telecommunications that was in disarray. Most nations believed strongly that one of the war’s root causes was the international community’s failure to regulate the global flow and quality of information. The ITU had made a global network possible – but what good was that network if it helped to circulate fascistic propaganda and ignite world war?

Observers insisted that to avoid World War III, the newly formed United Nations would have to supplement the ITU by considering not just the technical elements of communication but the content of the information sent and received. They wanted an international organization to address censorship, misinformation and incitement to violence, in particular. At its very first meeting in January 1946, the U.N. General Assembly called for a global conference on “Freedom of Information and the Press.”

The first U.N. General Assembly, in London in 1946. United Nations/Marcel Bolomey
But the resulting conference, in 1948, revealed deep fissures over what “freedom of information” meant in practical terms. The U.S. and most of Western Europe wanted to guarantee Western news and telecommunications firms’ freedom to set up networks wherever and however they saw fit; journalists’ freedom of movement; and uniformly low, standardized telegraph rates for press use.

The developing countries, however, wanted to address the global inequality baked into international telecommunications and information flows. In 1938, for instance, U.S. companies and the British and French government-owned telecommunications companies controlled more than 96% of the telegraph cables that connected the world – much of which was still colonized. Four news agencies enjoyed a monopoly over international news: the U.S.’s Associated Press, Britain’s Reuters, France’s Havas and (until 1939) Germany’s Wolff. In 1946-47, four of every 10 telegraphs sent internationally came from the U.S. alone.