Sarah Nelson is a PhD candidate in US and international history at Vanderbilt University. She is also pursuing a Joint-PhD in Comparative Media Analysis, an interdisciplinary degree that complements media and communication studies with training in the Digital Humanities. Her research focuses on the history of international governance and decolonization, looking particularly at how telecommunications and media regulation became key domains of anticolonial contestation between the 1920s and ‘80s. The child of international school teachers, Sarah grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She holds bachelor’s degrees in history and Spanish from Belmont University, and is the 2020-21 Ambrose Monell Foundation Fellow for Technology and Democracy. She is currently based in Washington, DC.
Information’s Imperium: the struggle to decolonize global telecommunications and make information ‘free,’ 1919-1984
The political goal of “information freedom” has become a lodestone of international governance over telecommunications and the press. But across the 20th century, debates over what kinds of technological regulations and international laws should be included under its rubric have gone unresolved—deeply entwined, I argue, in the exercise of imperial power and the fight for decolonization. Beginning in the 1920s, state officials, telecom firms, and news executives across the Global North persistently equated “freedom of information” with their own latitude to lay telecom infrastructure and distribute news as befit their particular material interests. But their counterparts across the Global South took a fundamentally different view. Without considering the effects imperial domination and global inequality, they insisted, US and Western European conceptions of an international “right to information” were not simply farcical; they undermined poor and decolonizing states’ national and cultural sovereignty, trapping them in cycles of dependency upon imperial and wealthier states’ communications technology and information industries. My dissertation traces these debates, and the policy regimes they inspired, across interwar attempts to govern wireless radio technologies; UN efforts to enshrine freedom of information as a human right in the 1940s and ‘50s; debates in the International Telecommunications Union and Unesco over satellite communications in the developmentalist and decolonizing 1960s; and the Non-Aligned Movement’s endeavor to achieve a New World Information Order in the 1970s-80s. In so doing, the project provides a critical genealogy of the use and abuse of “freedom” language in international communications governance—re-centering the problem of empire and inequality in the supposed age of information.