The Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution is Transforming Our World

Wriston, Walter B.
1992

Chapter Eight

Borders are not Boundaries

Chapter Eight

Borders are not Boundaries

 

 

Radio waves have never respected frontiers, and from an altitude of 36,000 kilometers, national boundaries are singularly inconspicuous. The world of the future will be an open world.

Arthur C. Clark

ON OCTOBER 4, 1957, I HAPPENED TO BE IN BAGHDAD, AN area in which an advanced civilization existed as early as 4000 B.C. But never in that long history had there been a day like this. On that date, the world was startled to learn that the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik.

World reaction to the event was mixed. Dr. Edward Teller opined that the United States "had lost a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor." Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of the United States, took a more sanguine view:

So far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota. I see nothing at this moment...that is significant in that development as far as security is concerned, except...it does definitely prove the possession by the Russian scientists of a very powerful thrust in their rocketry...

The military, represented by Rear Adm. Rawson Bennett, told an NBC television audience that Sputnik is "a hunk of iron almost anybody could launch." The chancellor of West Ger-

p.130

many, Konrad Adenauer, related the event to European geography: "Five hundred and sixty miles is only the distance from Bonn to Vienna. It does not prove that they can fire anything parallel to the earth over a distance of many thousand miles."

The blinding clarity of hindsight, Dr. Teller was in some ways closer to the mark than the military or our elected leaders. On the other hand, the fallout from the event did galvanize American politicians to mount a program which would put a man on the moon.

Satellite technology changed the world forever. Even today the full consequences have not yet been played out. These satellites now bind the world in an electronic infrastructure that carries news, money, and data anywhere on the planet with the speed of light. Satellites not only carry television, radio and telephone transmissions around the world, but in so doing have for better or worse radically altered the "balance of information power," tipping it away from the state and toward the individual.

Of course, satellites are only part of the story. An onrush of technologies -- the convergence of computers with telecommunications, VCRs, electronic data bases, ever cheaper and simpler techniques for collecting and broadcasting the news, and the fax machine -- has created a global arena of shared popular information that takes no notice of the lines on the map. While some tens of thousands of financial specialists now have instant access to economic and financial news, hundreds of millions of people around the world are plugged into what has become essentially a single network -- albeit with local interests and subdivisions -- of popular communication. Today, for example, the 60 million personal computers in the United States can store, manipulate, and transmit information across myriad networks to other computers and to thousands of computer bulletin boards around the nation and the world. All kinds of special interest groups use these electronic boards to post their message. The , for example, reported on April 24, 1988, that Amnesty International's action center, which alerts the world to gross violations of human rights anywhere in the world, is actually run from the home of a couple in a small town in Colorado. In addition to posting all kinds of information on bulletin boards, the personal computer (PC) puts huge mailing lists in the hands of political activists -- and the mails are flooded with tens of millions of mailers promoting one cause or a candidate for office. No longer does it take a massive investment to produce a newsletter or a small newspaper. Desktop publishing technology gives small groups and even individuals that ability for around $20,000. In a kind of an electronic throwback to America's Committees of Correspondence during the Revolution that kept patriots advised of the latest developments in the war with England, private PC users have put in place thousands of electronic bulletin boards that carry news about everything from personal experience to political messages. The political power that can be mobilized against sovereign governments by the users of these electronic bulletin boards was demonstrated, ironically, when in 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggested that telephone rates be raised for computer network users. According to the , Congress and the FCC were inundated with mail protesting the proposed rate hikes. Although the journalist Bob Davis headlined the article "Hobbyists as Lobbyists," these networks are now used by professional pressure groups of all kinds and are capable of burying congressional mail rooms on any given issue.

The radio talk show host is another wild card in the efforts of sovereigns to put their spin on government news. An issue like a tax increase, for example, which in former days might have snuck through the local council, can become a hot issue when the citizens call in to express their views, egged on by the master of ceremonies. This is a phenomenon in America that appears further to weaken any chance a sovereign has to contain news of an unfavorable event.

Indeed, Orwell's vision has been reversed: Instead of the sovereign hearing each word said by a citizen in the privacy of his or her home, it is the citizen who hears what the sovereign is doing and has myriad electronic pathways to register approval or dissent. All of a sudden, everyone has access to everything, except in the most primitive regions or in those countries whose leaders are so dedicated to repression that they are willing to cut their nations out of modernity to maintain their rule. But as we saw in Romania, particularly, such rulers are fast disappearing.

All of this has profound effects on the ancient concept of sovereignty. The sanctity of national borders is an artifact from another age. Today data of all kinds move across, over, and through those borders as if they did not exist. Over the horizon radar reaches deep into "national" airspace of the largest countries, and satellites look down with high-resolution cameras at installations hidden deep within national borders.

Borders are no longer boundaries; technology has made them porous. More than that, since satellite communications are now non-Euclidean in the sense that the communication distance between all points covered by a satellite's footprint are basically equal, borders are no long partitions between one area and another.

A historian of the Left, E. J. Hobsbawm describes the current scene this way:

At present we are living through a curious combination of the technology of the late twentieth century, the free trade of the nineteenth, and the rebirth of the sort of interstitial centres characteristic of world trade in the Middle Ages. City states like Hong Kong and Singapore revive, extraterritorial "industrial zones" multiply inside technically sovereign nation-states like Hanseatic Steelyards, and so do offshore tax havens in otherwise valueless islands whose only function is, precisely, to remove economic transactions from the control of

p.133

nation-states. The ideology of nations and nationalism is irrelevant to any of these developments.[66] 

History is replete with efforts by governments to control, channel, or obliterate information. In most countries in the West, the postal and telecommunication businesses are owned and operated by the state. It is said that the English kings wanted the crown to control the postal services so that they could steam open envelopes to search for treasonous material. The advent of the telegraph and its use by the press presented new and novel problems. Ithiel de Sola Pool tells us, "In many countries what developed...were concessionary telegraph rates. Where telegraph services were state-owned, the reductions were often massive and politically based. Governments were willing to suffer a loss to keep the political good will of the press and to gain some leverage over it."[67]  This practice became obsolete when the news organizations built their own communication networks, and today very little news moves by commercial telegraph. But however transmitted, the printed press had a profound influence on the way society in general and nation-states in particular operated. Richard Brown has written that:

When the diffusion of public information moved from face-to-face networks to the newspaper page, public life and the society in which politics operated shifted from a communal discipline to a market-oriented, competitive regimen in which the foundations of influence changed. This did not happen everywhere all at once, or for every type of public information, but by the middle decades of the nineteenth century so much of public affairs were being conducted through the press that where extra-local public information was concerned, word-of-mouth networks had been largely relegated to a subordinate role.[68] 

As each new medium came along, governments invented new mechanisms of control. In America there are three rather distinct standards that have been applied to three sectors of the communications industry. Broadly speaking, there is one standard for the printed press, one for broadcasting of all types, and one for common carriers, such as the telephone. The First Amendment has protected the print media in the United States not only to say what it wished but also from special taxes, any attempt at control through licensing, or even requiring the right of reply as now obtains in broadcasting,[69]  The Constitution says that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The court has taken the position that "no law" means just that.

Radio, on the other hand, is replete with rigid rules which are anathema to print journalism. These restrictions rest on the theory that the airwaves are public property and the broadcaster a trustee who is thus subject to regulations ranging from the prohibition of broadcasting pornography to the guarantee of the public's right to reply. Broadcasting, both over the air and via cable, is also often subject to special taxes or fees, the imposition of which have been ruled unconstitutional with respect to the print media.

Telephones, as common carriers, have still a different set of regulations regarding everything from access to their lines to the confidentiality of the data that travels over its wires or microwaves and even what other businesses a common carrier company might enter.

The increasing convergence of the technologies currently powering broadcasting, publishing, telephones, and cable will pose problems for the sovereign undreamed of when the technologies first appeared. The three regulatory models are basically incompatible, and as the technology merges, it is probable that the First Amendment model will prevail as the operative policy, and so the power to regulate the other models must decline.

The United States, despite its commitment to the expansion of freedom, has never put much money behind its propaganda efforts to tell the story of freedom around the world. Since national budgets often reveal national priorities, the U.S. budget is instructive in this regard. As late as 1987 the line item in the federal budget for military bands was $154,200,000, while the budget for salaries and expenses of the Voice of America was $169 million. Some nations put a much higher value on the war of words crossing borders and resort to jamming broadcasts in order to block out even the modest effort the United States has made to tell the story of freedom. Such censorship is prohibited by international law. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to...receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." This principle is also articulated in the Helsinki Agreement of 1975. Despite these agreements, many nations do not want their citizens to hear other views, and they jam outside radio broadcasts.

The Soviets, for example, explained their jamming by saying they are mindful of a 1936 treaty -- the International Convention Governing the Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace. This old League of Nations product was designed to stop Nazi propaganda aimed at Germany's neighbors by Hitler. It is a prime example of hard cases making bad law.

As information moves financial markets, so also is it altering the political structure of the world by invading local political contests without the consent of the government involved. Some years ago, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president of the Philippines and took office without incident. In the 1986 Philippine election the television cameras went into the barrios, and the whole world knew the election was fraudulent. Despite Marcos's assertion that he won the election, world opinion, enforced by the instant flow of information, forced him into exile.

In another part of the world, a different technology was

p.136

used to unseat a shah. In a sense, it is ironic that a would-be leader of one of the lesser-developed countries first grasped the potential political power of the audiocassette. Close observers assign some measurable part of the success of the revolution perpetrated by the Ayatollah Khomeini to his skillful use of such cassettes, recorded at his base in France, smuggled into Iran, and broadcast to the people.

All new technology tends to erode the influence of existing power structures. The current attack on the power of sovereigns is the proliferation of knowledge which used to be confined to small groups of leaders but is now popping up on screens all over the world. When a monopoly of information is broken, the power structure is in danger. This is true across the human spectrum, from societies dominated by witch doctors to the most sophisticated governments. A rudimentary knowledge of medicine broke the power of witch doctors, and the growing knowledge that freedom exists in other areas is toppling some repressive governments. The geosynchronous satellite that broadcasts news to people with hand-held transistor radios gives citizens of closed societies a basis for comparing their lot to others. This is a clear and present danger to dictators of all kinds.

The first reaction of those in power is usually to ignore a new technology, but then, if it persists, to denigrate its usefulness and, finally, to embrace it in an attempt to maintain power. And yet even as they attempt to maintain their power by embracing the new technology, the elites can find themselves altered by it. Some may survive the change, but their position and function in society even within the ruling class will be changed. Modern information technology is so powerful politically powerful that elites who embrace it will be altered beyond recognition. And yet those who utterly reject it will condemn their countries to second-class status or worse.

The Communist grip on Eastern Europe was broken not by violent revolution (except in Romania) but by what can only

p.137

be called a political surrender of the ruling elites, a surrender which in several cases involved a public confession of failure by party hierarchs. In Communist show trials of the past, fallen apparatchiks also made confessions, pleading guilty to utterly fantastic accounts of their supposed crimes as if to honor the power of the state to control history itself. Yet this time around the failed leadership confessed not to a state-conjured tale of horrors but to the simple reality of Communism's failure. Political leaders confessed to what everyone knew, in large part to demonstrate to their former subjects that they were sufficiently in touch with reality to merit some future role in the governance of the nation. They joined in the national conversation and were changed by it.

Jeane Kirkpatrick has written:

The speed with which the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were transformed was itself a great shock. A chief characteristic of Marxist-Leninist states had always been the skill of their elites not only in seizing and consolidating power but also in preserving power. None had even been overthrown by its own military, although several existed in countries with a tradition of military coups and intrigue. None had ever fallen because of dissension in its ranks, although several were found in countries with a tradition of factionalism. None had been overthrown from within nor evolved into any other kind of government, although several existed in countries where there was a long tradition of regime instability. These regimes were called totalitarian because they claimed total jurisdiction over all aspects of the society."[70] 

In lands where the big lie was at once both creed and litmus test, a display of power and a demonstration of the political effectiveness of terror, it is now simply ridiculous. The first requirement of any aspiring leader in the new Eastern Bloc is that he or she publicly reject the lies of the past. Even politics in the former Soviet Union has already become democratic

p.138

in this one sense: It is performed in an arena of shared information acknowledged by all rather than in a political theater of the absurd in which frantic denial of reality was the essential motif of the drama. That arena of shared information is a creation of information technology. As the iron curtain has become porous to ideas, information, and even entertainment, the Communist elites have been unable to convince even party members to stick to the party line.

In short, politics, even in the East, is subject to the information revolution. Information has always been a key to political power. But when information abounds and overflows in public, when an entire society is privy to what once may have been a closely guarded "secrets," political strategies based on a close holding of information no longer work. When everyone in the nation, at least potentially, can join in a single national "conversation," there are only two ways, as we have seen, in which a government can keep its power: It can allow its policies to be guided by that national conversation or it can revert to a level of repression that even totalitarian regimes find inconvenient in the best of times and which in an age of instant information brings world opprobrium.

There was more behind the liberation of Eastern Europe than a revolution in technology. Sheer brutal terror, such as we saw in Tiananmen Square, might have stopped it and was nearly tried in the Soviet Union in August in 1991. Nevertheless, information technology and the emergence of an international Information Standard in politics played a powerful role. And as events progressed, the revolution was spread largely by the power of television and radio as the citizens in each of the bloc states were given hope by the pictures of progress next door.

The latest example of the power of the information revolution is the world reaction to the plight of the Kurds after the Gulf war. Although the Kurds have been subjected to subjugation or attempted subjugation for centuries -- at least since the seventh century, when Kurdistan was conquered by

p.139

the Arabs -- their plight never attracted the attention of the world until vivid images of starving children appeared on television screens around the world. While the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of a sovereign power has long been a tenet of international law, the television images of these pathetic children swept it aside, and allied forces eventually were forced by public pressure to go into Iraq to protect the Kurds and feed the hungry. Indeed, serious students of international affairs have begun to question the concept of what constitutes "internal affairs" and to suggest that the international community had an "obligation" to intervene in defense of human rights anywhere in the world, national borders notwithstanding. This new dialogue is driven by the information revolution, which brings human suffering thousand of miles away into our living rooms, but is a long way from the traditional concept of sovereignty.

Because the power of the First Amendment is so great and our tradition of free speech so powerful, Americans rarely contemplate the political power of information. Yet even in the home of democratic rights, the United Kingdom, information has not been as free as one would think. "For 50 years," writes Rupert Murdoch, "British television has operated on the assumption that the people could not be trusted to watch what they wanted to watch, so it had to be controlled by like-minded people who knew what was good for them."[71]  By way of contrast, in America the choice is huge; nearly 60 percent of American homes have cable television, carrying about two dozen channels at a cost of approximately fifteen dollars a month. Mr. Murdoch went on to say: "This compares to a compulsory £66 license fee in Britain, which brings you two channels, whether you want them or not."[72]  But the lack of choice is only one problem. There are political consequences as well.

British broadcasters are now constantly subject to inhibiting criticism and reporting restrictions. BBC

p.140

staff have even been vetted by government security forces...Enormous pressure succeeded in stopping a programme on Count Tolstoy's book about British involvement in the forced repatriation of anti-Communist Russians and Yugoslavs after the war. In another era, Churchill's warnings on the dangers of Hitler were kept off the BBC to please the Chamberlain Government.[73] 

As more and more competitors to BBC come in -- and with satellite technology they cannot practically be stopped -- this kind of thing will become increasingly impossible. Tyrants and their subjects know most about this power. The control of information was the bedrock of both Communist and Nazi regimes. The Soviets for decades devoted enormous resources to controlling not only radio and television, printing presses or photostat machines but even mimeograph machines.

Though we in the United States have relatively little experience with the systematic repression by the state of information, we certainly have seen power structures upset as the flow of information became more bountiful. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the civil rights movement: The plight of black people in parts of our nation went almost unnoticed by many Americans for almost a hundred years. Suddenly the TV cameras brought into our living rooms the image of Bull Connor with his dogs and whips. Americans decided together in very short order that this was wrong, and the civil rights movement made a quantum leap forward and dramatically changed the political landscape in our country. Politicians were quick to understand what was happening, and some tried to hold back the tide of images cascading on the American public. A well-known Mississippi state senator by the name of Wilburn Hooker succeeded in getting a law passed in that state setting up an "electronic curtain" to shield the citizens of his state from outside radio and TV reports on the civil rights movement. The attempted information blockade was, of course, totally ineffective. For one thing, Mississippi lacked the technical ability to jam broadcasts. Despite these efforts,

p.141

television made the conditions of blacks under Jim Crow part of the common national conversation. Once that happened, the civil rights revolution was almost inevitable.

"Information blockades" are becoming impractical everywhere, not just in open societies such as ours. Borders are no longer barriers to information. And where there are no effective borders, the concept of what constitutes sovereignty begins, by necessity, to alter.

The breakdown of borders to information is not simply a matter of raw technology. There is already a world market in information, including powerful and increasingly international enterprises that effectively subvert government power even when they intend to do nothing more than entertain or inform a worldwide audience. U.S.-made television programming, for instance, has become steadily more available around the world and seems to be in ever greater demand. Even in China after the repression signaled by Tiananmen Square, millions of people are watching and for entertainment. Coincidentally, they learning about other ways of life in other parts of the world. Just as the escalating costs of high-tech product development drive companies to exploit global markets more aggressively than ever, the escalating costs of television production have driven U.S. producers to market their products aggressively outside the United States. Revenues from first-season U.S. broadcasts are no longer sufficient to pay for any prime-time show, and producers now depend for their profits on domestic and foreign syndication revenues.

Because of this and because Hollywood still leads the rest of the world in the production of quality popular entertainment, all of Western Europe and much of the rest of the world avidly follow American prime-time dramas and situation comedies. The world buys eagerly in part because their consumers like American programming and in part because their own domestic markets are even less able than the U.S. market to provide sole support for local productions.

Currently, across Europe more than 70 percent of non-documentary TV programming is imported, with more than 50 percent coming from the United States. European governments do not like this. France and Italy have been particularly vocal about a cultural invasion, and the European Community (EC) has approved a directive stating that European TV stations should devote a majority of their airtime to European-made programming.[74] 

Yet any effort truly to control what the citizens of free European nations watch on television seems very likely to fail. SKY Channel alone, a satellite-based system, has more than 17 million viewers in Europe. If Communist governments cannot stop the flow of information at the border, it seems quite unlikely that the governments of free nations could take the measures necessary to keep "L.A. Law" off European TV screens. Indeed, some years ago the Danish government decreed that "Dallas" be removed from Danish TV as inappropriate entertainment for its citizens. This action created such a political firestorm from enraged citizens that the government had to bring back J.R. Ewing and his family to national TV.

Moreover, the issue is likely to become moot. Just as multinational corporations and transnational business alliances, once overwhelmingly an American phenomenon, have become the world's way of knitting together a global market, television, film, and other media production seems likely to go transnational as well. In fact, organizations such as the Associated Press and Reuters are among the oldest examples of major businesses pursuing a strategy of transnational business alliance. The Japanese have recently invested heavily in American entertainment companies. British and American coproduction and distribution deals are becoming much more common. Organizations such as News Corporation Limited, the company controlled by Rupert Murdoch, operate major print, broadcast, and film production companies on three continents and defy national classification. All of this private

p.143

bypassing of borders is now supported by more than twenty-six thousand non-governmental international business and labor organizations.[75] 

If information organizations are going global, so is the information they offer. The "Americanization" of popular productions is already underway in Europe, particularly in England. If affairs follow their normal course, we in America will soon be learning from the Europeans and the Japanese as well as teaching them. This has already happened in other media. As Oswald Ganley has pointed out, it is not only and that are read by decision makers all over the world but the and as well.[76]  Elites in Japan, Europe, and North America are so thoroughly immersed in the same pool of information, entertainment, and even gossip that they have, according to Kenichi Ohmae created a worldwide market in fashion-based consumer goods. These people really do live in a "global village."

The nations that are the mainstay of this global media village are also world leaders in personal freedom, particularly freedom of speech and the press. Although much is made currently of the dominance of Japan in many areas, some of the foundations of this power rests on the government's lingering ability to control the lives and life-styles of its citizens. This control is being eroded by the flow of information. Ohmae says:

In Japan...our leaders can no longer keep the people in substandard housing because we know -- directly -- how people elsewhere live. We now travel abroad. In fact, ten million Japanese travel abroad annually these days. Or we can sit in our living rooms at home, watch CNN, and know instantaneously what is happening in the United States. During 1988, nearly 90 percent of all Japanese honeymooners went abroad. This kind of fact is hard to ignore. The government now seriously recognizes that it has built plants and offices but has failed to meet the needs of its young people for relaxation and

p.144

recreation. So, for the first time in 2,000 years, our people are revolting against their government and telling it what it must do for them. This would have been unthinkable when only a small official elite controlled access to all information.[77] 

This flow of information will not only not go away, it will increase. A new series of innovations in television broadcasting equipment is turning the entire world into a local news beat. So efficient an information pathway has television news become that TV has become a force in world affairs and a weapon of diplomacy. The national and international agendas of nations are increasingly being set not by some grand government plan but by the media: Policymakers have to spend a good share of their time and energy dealing with whatever crisis or pseudocrisis has been identified by the media that particular day. Real issues, deliberative thought, and long-range strategic plans are often casualties of whatever damage-control actions are required at the moment. In these circumstances, the old bipartisanship, at least in American foreign affairs, has fallen prey to a new divisiveness. The so-called TV docudramas, part fact, part fiction, have even attempted to change the record of past events. The merging of media and message has created a situation wherein, according to Daniel Boorstin, a "larger and larger proportion of our experience, of what we read and see and hear, has come to consist of pseudo-events."[78] 

This kind of information is rarely a solid foundation for good policy judgments. However, it characterizes the age in which we live. We live in a world where Yasir Arafat works with a media consultant; where Mohammed Abbas, who hijacked the and murdered an old man in cold blood, appears on American network television, even though he was a fugitive from justice at the time; where the Iranians stage marches for the cameras; and where Soviet spokesmen appear regularly on American TV. The communications rev-

p.145

olution has made today's world very different from that of Citizen Edmond Genet -- now, instead of being asked to leave the country, he would be on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" to protest President George Washington's outrageous policies.

Without passing a value judgment on whether this is good or bad, the fact is that representative government, as envisaged by the Founding Fathers, is no longer operating in the manner originally intended. Every government in the world has had to change and adapt its way of governing because the use of information technology has far outstripped the political process.

Fernand Braudel has written that the sovereign's first task has always been "to secure obedience, to gain for itself the monopoly of the use of force in a given society, neutralizing all the possible challenges inside it and replacing them with what Max Weber called 'legitimate violence.'[79]  The central government took over the private armies of feudal lords and city-states to create a monopoly of power. Today that monopoly is being challenged by new private armies called terrorists. And once again technology plays a role.

No one understands the use of information technology better than modern terrorists. The terrorists who stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two hostages from November 4, 1979, to January 18, 1981, were equipped with their own television cameras and their own microwave linkups to Iranian TV. The world's media organizations were only too eager to give events in Iran saturation coverage. In fact, ABC's "Nightline," now a fixture of late-night news coverage, was created in order to cover the hostage crisis.

In June 1985 the world saw on their TV screens a TWA Boeing 727 on the tarmac at Beirut Airport with the pilot John Testrake, a gun to his head, being interviewed by a reporter as if the reporter were covering the events at a political convention. The fate of the passengers on this TWA plane absorbed more than half of the network news programs. In fact, William C. Adams, who made a study of the TWA cov-

p.146

erage, says that the percentage of the evening broadcasts devoted to the story was between 62 and 68 percent. In a brilliant study of , the journalist Michael O'Neill observes that

...the networks will be listed in the final ledger of consequences because they must share responsibility for what occurred. They were not just watchers, standing and observing, but card-carrying participants who helped shape and direct the unfolding drama. They merged with the crisis, became part of it, and action and coverage became so intertwined it was hard to tell one from the other..."[80] 

There is no easy answer for this phenomenon, but there is little question that no matter what its propriety, it is here to stay. Former Secretary of State George Shultz has called terrorism "low intensity warfare," but whatever it is called, it is a form of war against the citizens of some country that further impinges on what used to be sovereignty. And few would argue that, in Mrs. Thatcher's words, the media gives the terrorists "the oxygen of publicity," presenting even more difficult dilemmas for sovereign governments in the future.

Recently, Gladys and Oswald Ganley published a study on the political implications of the spread of videocassettes. They concluded, among other things, that "despite widespread bans on both VCRs and videocassette programming, people globally are at present viewing almost whatever they choose to." They point out that cassette

distribution has been greatly aided by widespread black markets, ample smuggling routes, organized crime groups, cassette pirates, large numbers of migrant workers, and a variety of (often hidden) discretionary income in theoretically poor countries. This is occurring despite hundreds of years of government censorship of other media in most nations.

The Ganleys expected to find sharp distinctions in how and to what extent VCRs and videocassette tapes had penetrated the free, Communist, and developing worlds. Instead, they found videocassette piracy to be "global," the smuggling of VCRs "omnipresent."

"Migrant couriers of VCRs and cassettes cross all sorts of world borders...illegal machines and tapes are bought worldwide, despite an apparent lack of income; and specific political acts using VCRs and cassettes have been discovered to have occurred in a wide variety of settings. Although VCRs and cassettes are often unwanted by governments, no government, including that of the Soviet Union has been able to put a stop to them.[81] 

The Ganleys, writing in the mid-1980s, before the apparent dissolution of Communist control in Eastern Europe, documented a number of cases in which VCRs were used for explicitly political purposes in the Eastern bloc and show also that both machines and tapes were commonly available in most of the bloc countries by that time.

It is too early to assess whether or how much the VCR contributed to the upheaval in Europe, but we do know that dissidents used videotapes extensively and that the Communist government tried very hard to stop them. The KGB was concerned that videotapes would be used for -- a word coined for "tape publishing" -- by political opposition groups. Their concerns were well founded. When Poland was under martial law during the early 1980s, Solidarity smuggled to the Western media videotaped interviews with outlawed Solidarity leaders. And because video is such a simple and inexpensive technology compared to film, the emergence of the VCR gave a great boost to the underground moviemaking, both dramas and documentaries, many with political messages.

These technological developments profoundly affect the

p.148

political structure of the world and over time will help to expand human freedom. History teaches that revolutions occur when people become aware of alternatives to their lot. This is happening all over the world, and it appears to be beyond the power of any sovereign government to stop it. That is good news for those who believe in freedom.

All modern societies require access to huge amounts of information and must have the computer power to solve immensely complex problems. An open society like ours fosters the exchange of information. In the United States it is possible for a private citizen to access well over three thousand data bases, many from their personal computers at home. A closed society like the Soviet Union, in which information was the monopoly of the state, and where even the GNP (gross national product) until recently was a classified number, handcuffed itself out of existence. The Kremlin wanted to have the Soviet Union keep up with the West, yet it would not allow its people fully to participate in the information revolution. For it allowed that, it would have risked losing control of its information monopoly -- which is in fact what happened. Modern scientific research increasingly requires the ability to have access to huge data bases at remote locations. If access is limited to a small number of scientists, progress will be slowed. Opening up data bases to large numbers of men and women loosens the state's control. It is a very real Hobson's choice, and the dilemma will only get worse over time.

Thus, as in the case of business regulation, government power over information is being mitigated in part by the need to compete with more free, less regulated nations and economies. In this regard, the contrast between the West and the East of course is quite stark. But even among the democratic capitalist nations a competition for freedom is emerging. One of the most striking examples of free governments asserting their control over mostly private communications has been state-licensed or state-owned telephone monopolies. The

p.149

public ownership of the post office tended to carry over to the telephones as they came along; and indeed in most European countries the PTTs (postal telegraph and telephone administrations) are government monopolies. One might think that as long as governments did not engage in censorship, this was nothing more than a benign government utility. Such is not the case. The public ownership of the PTTs gave the government enormous power to frustrate powerful new telecommunications technologies, which has huge implications for the free flow of information, money, and electronic services. In addition "...PTTs insist on charging exorbitant rates for incoming and outgoing broadcasts."[82]  In Germany, for example, in the mid-1980s, the Bundespost told the international news service Reuters that satellite technology would not work. After much negotiation, it was agreed that if Bundespost people installed the satellite dish on the roof of the Reuters building and connected it to their lines, they would give it a try. To no one's surprise, the satellite functioned perfectly. But much valuable time was lost. In a similar manner PTTs resisted intelligent terminals in the offices of their customers, preferring to keep the intelligence within their own system.

Control over the channeling of information -- who learns about what and when -- has always conferred power on both the controller of the switch and on the recipient. One of the early examples of this phenomenon occurred in a small town in the Midwest. Some readers probably remember the days when you picked up the telephone and it was answered by a human being who asked for the number, then plugged the cord from your phone into a hole on the switchboard connecting it to another phone. It was not entirely unknown for an operator to overhear some of the conversation. In this particular town I am thinking of, there was a man named Strowger who ran an undertaking business. He had only one competitor but that competitor always seemed to get most of the business. It didn't take much detective work for

p.150

Strowger to discover the reason. His competitor's sister was the telephone operator. Whenever she heard of a death in the village, she switched the call to her brother, effectively cutting off most of Strowger's business.

In self-defense, Strowger invented a device to eliminate the human telephone operator. It was a ratchet-based electro-mechanical switch. When a spring was added to this device by a watchmaker, the invention formed the basis of the familiar dial on latter-day telephones. The switch and its successors fundamentally changed the telephone business and the way it was configured and managed.

Strowger's successors are thousands of technologists in hundreds of companies devoted to designing "value-added" telecommunications services, to strengthening and refining the vast telecommunications network that, as we have seen, is remaking finance, industry, and trade around the world. Yet state-licensed and state-run monopoly phone companies have always been a potential threat to these new technologies. In fact, the decade-long series of court cases that ended in the breakup of the Bell system and allowed for competition in many aspects of American telecommunications started with a fight over whether AT&T could prohibit devices not of its devising from being attached to the system.

Today Japan and much of Europe have started down the same road to privatizing and deregulating national phone systems. Progress is slow in some countries. But Japan and almost all the EC nations have recognized to some degree that too much government control over the phone system will hinder innovations and impose significant competitive disadvantages on their citizens. The old PTTs are gradually being exposed to competition and forced to pare back regulations controlling what their lines can be used for or what equipment can be attached to them.

Another facet of the reluctance of the sovereign to loosen controls covers national and international regulation of transborder data flow (TBDF), as the diplomats have learned to call

p.151

it. TBDF has been defined simply as "the flow across borders of any kind of material which is computer readable." TBDF raises various concerns. Many governments have passed privacy laws regulating what sort of information about citizens may be kept in government or private data banks and under what conditions sensitive information can be sold or given to others. They wish to be able to extend these protections to data concerning their citizens but stored or transferred beyond their borders. Less noble motives also come into play, including protectionism.

Despite these powerful motives not much has been done to effectively restrict TBDF. In part this is because domestic businesses see such restrictions as a competitive burden. These companies oppose their own governments' regulatory ambitions. Moreover, regulating the flow of bits and bytes over a telecom network is pretty difficult without a massive system for decoding and reading the data, in effect the equivalent of steaming open electronic mail. In countries with a long tradition of privacy, such actions do not sit well with the populace. And finally, in nearly all these countries the tradition of free speech is strong enough to raise alarms at the idea of governments setting up "tollbooths" to collect a tax on the flow of ideas.

The media, which have no particular love for Wall Street and the financial service business, finally came to understand that the flow of electrons which carried their new stories was indistinguishable from the electrons which carried the general ledger of Citibank or Coca-Cola; thus, their interests in the unrestricted flow of data was exactly the same as those of business institutions. Once the issue of media "free speech" was joined, the momentum went out of the movement to find ways to block TBDF.

From TBDF between the developed market economies to illegal videotapes behind the Iron Curtain to openly received or secretly snared satellite TV transmissions around the globe, the moral is the same: Borders are becoming irrelevant

p.152

to information, and yet borders as boundaries have been one of the pillars of the ancient concept of sovereignty. Borders have in fact defined sovereignty -- until today. The information age is forcing a reexamination of what constitutes sovereignty. More and more we are learning that problems ranging from the world's ecology to the assignment of radio frequencies will be solved only with the sufferance or with the cooperation of others, including other sovereigns.

In the world we are building today it is impossible to assert sovereignty over information because information and the pathways over which it travels, including the heavens themselves, are shared in common. It is increasingly difficult to keep one's citizens out of the global conversation. As Tolkien would say, "The road goes ever on and on." But on this road one travels at the speed of light down a million pulsing pathways, and the trolls are just are not clever or quick enough to catch you.

 
 
Footnotes:

[66] E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 174-75.

[67] Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies without Boundaries (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 73.

[68] Richard D. Brown, Knowledge is Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 279.

[69] New York Times vs. United States, 1971, U.S.S.C.

[70] Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, The Withering Away of the Totalitarian State (Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press, 1990), p. 273.

[71] Rupert Murdoch, MacTaggart Lecture, August 25, 1989.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Blanca Riemer and Karen Wolman, Business Week, 27 March 1989, pp. 46-47.

[75] Yearbook of International Organizations, 8th ed. (New Providence, N.J.: K.G. Saur, 1990/1).

[76] Oswald H. and Gladys D. Ganley, To Inform or Control, 2nd ed. (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing Co., 1989).

[77] Kenichi Ohmae, "Managing in a Borderless World," Harvard Business Review, May-June 1989, p.153.

[78] See Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Atheneum, 1962).

[79] Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce (New York: Harper & Row,1982), p. 515.

[80] Michael O'Neill, Terrorist Spectaculars (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1986), p. 53.

[81] Gladys and Oswald H. Ganley, Global Political Fallout, p. 4.

[82] Stuart H. Loory, "News From the Global Village," Gannett Center Journal, Fall 1989, p. 169.