Free trade agreements have increasingly broadened their scope of regulation concerning telecommunications, under the pretext that these are services just like any other. This has hindered the access to communication and information as a fundamental human right as the private sector gains power through liberalization.
Decisions that affect the global media system are now being taken behind closed doors, without consulting the civil society but with the support of giant media moguls that encourage corporate property of information, showing total disregard for cultural diversity issues.
Advocates for a market-oriented information society are the big media companies that own traditional audiovisual media as well as internet sites such as the recent AOL-Time Warner merger. Their governmental arm is the Government of the USA that legislates in favour of big media companies both nationally and internationally by controlling multilateral organizations, namely the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). These organizations, as well as other regional free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) play a double role in protecting "Big Media" interests: they not only eliminate barriers to the expansion of multinationals but also protect their overseas profits through intellectual property agreements.
When the WTO was created in 1995, a General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) was established to deal with all kinds of service goods, including telecommunications. This agreement planned a progressive liberalization of trade in services leaving little space for governments to adopt their own social policies. In the meantime, private corporations dominated the market.
Following the GATS plan, two important telecommunications agreements were signed: the Basic Telecommunication Agreement (BTA) and the Information Technology Agreement (ITA). The former, reached in 1996, aimed to reduce tariffs on information technology products by the year 2000, a measure that favoured the expansion of telecommunication companies as sales increased worldwide. The latter takes a step forward in the process of liberalization, forcing members to open their telecommunication markets thus imposing a pro-competitive system that bans preferential treatment to national companies.
Many developing countries have shown a tendency towards liberalization of ICTs in the hope that the developed world would show signs of flexibility in the subsidies to their agricultural goods. This "bargain", however, proved to be unsuccessful in the WTO ministerial meeting held in Cancun in 2003 where the United States refused to take any measure that would harm their farmers.
Nevertheless, cooperation between southern countries managed to keep liberalization of telecommunications at bay in order to foster plurality in media to guarantee balance and respect for cultural diversity.
As a result of the collapse in international negotiations, the United States has turned aggressively towards bilateral trade agreements -with Chile, Singapore, Morocco, Australia and Central American countries-. Regarding telecommunications, the US strategy consists in prohibiting any upcoming measure that may regulate "digital products", especially the Internet, considered to be the new channel for the spread of information.
Tensions between North and South, as well as the debate on the role of a free market have found a new scenario: the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), consisting of two stages, the last one to be held in Tunis in November 2005.
Hosted by the ITU, the summit has provided a space for civil society to express their views on the matter. The Civil Society Declaration, that emerged from the first phase of the WSIS held in Geneva December 2003, stated that "it is not acceptable for [...] global governance frameworks to be designed by and for small groups of powerful governments and companies and then exported to the world as faits accomplis. Instead, they must reflect the diverse views and interests of the international community as a whole."
Created in the Uruguay Round of negotiations held in 1995, GATS aims for the liberalizations of trade in all services, including telecommunications. The site provides a summary, the text of the agreement, news and interpretations.
Adopted in 1996, participants commited to completely eliminate duties on information technology products by the year 2000. The site includes previous events, list of participants, as well as information about recent symposium.
Negotiations began during the Uruguay Round in the framework of GATS and were completed years later with new members who commited to liberalize their telecommunication markets. The site includes a list of all current commitments.
Provides a briefing of the BTA as a "measure of the extent of telecommunications liberalisation in its member countries, and a mechanism for deepening commitments by these countries to liberalise their sectors".
According to this article the BTA implies that governments should not assist or give subsidy to local companies operating in the sector. This, according to the WTO logic, is to ensure a level playing field. Unfortunately, the field had never been level. Local companies cannot compete with multinationals that have access to vast resources, extremely large capital base, access to the most current technology and the advantages of economy of scale.
In this declaration the European Regional Ministers for Culture and Education expressed their concern about GATS impact in the fields of education, culture and media and demanded that democratically supported services in education, culture and media are excluded from further GATS involvement. PDF format.
The aim of this site is to provide a resource for information on how 'free trade' deals affect culture, media, and communication rights. Culture Trade Monitor lies at the intersection between the trade justice and communication rights movements.
At the Telecom'95 Nelson Mandela expressed: "given the fundamental impact of telecommunications on society and the immense historical imbalances, telecommunications issues must become part of general public debate on development policies. Telecommunications cannot be simply treated as one commercial sector of the economy, to be left to the forces of the free market".
This paper examines the changing balance of public and private control over media and telecommunications in the global political economy, patterns of concentration and investment in the overall communication sector, and possibilities for improving the contribution of media and telecommunications to development in different parts of the world.
Already, GATS places constraints on the ability of sovereign governments to implement cultural policies and programs. Proposals in the new round of liberalization talks and the comprehensive negotiating agenda adopted by the WTO, can only bring further restrictions on governmental measures that support domestic cultural expressions and ensure cultural diversity.
This article analyzes the US digital trade agenda, which includes the liberalization of trade in telecommunication, computer, entertainment and other electronically deliverable services, free trade chapters on e-commerce, and a strong protection of intellectual property rights (IPRs). PDF format.
International telecommunications regime: framing WSIS
This paper applies regime theory and institutional economics to the conflicts that arise when existing regimes are challenged at WSIS process. The paper presents the interests of four of the other main institutions involved, which more closely reflect those of the United States, including the WTO. PDF format.
The telecommunications regime comprises the principles, norms, rules and decision making procedures that governments have agreed to govern the organization of international networks and services. This paper explores its historical development, transformation, and decay. PDF format.
Signed in 2003, Chile commits to open its telecommunication markets establishing a competitive system that bans preferential rights to local firms. The site includes reports, reviews, press releases as well as the official text.
The Singapore-US agreement has been heralded as a model for reducing barriers to investment and strengthening intellectual property rights. The telecomunications clauses aim to create a free and open market for foreign investment.
Australia and the USA have decided the terms of a free trade agreement. The agreement is a "negative list" agreement: i.e. all aspects of trade between the two countries are included excepting those that are "subtracted" through explicitly stated provisions. Negative list agreements are especially dangerous because they require infinite foresight to anticipate their consequences.