WTO trade agreements and ICTs

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."
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more on this issue

International trade agreements

General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) (WTO)

Information Technology Agreement (ITA) (WTO)

Basic Telecommunication Agreement (BTA) (WTO)

WTO: The Basic Telecommunications Agreement: Background, process and status (Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO))

Related documents and opinions

Globalization, ICTs and the new imperialism: Perspectives on Africa in the global electronic village (Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD))

Brixen/Bressanone Declaration on Cultural Diversity and GATS (October 2002)

Culture Trade Monitor

Civil Society Declaration at WSIS

Telecommunications cannot be left to the market

The Political Economy of International Communications (UNRISD)

GATS: A growing threat to cultural policy (INCD)

From GATT-Uruguay Round to the WTO: Communication (South-North Development Monitor (SUNS))

The digital trade agenda of the US: Parallel tracks of bilateral, regional and multilateral liberalization

International telecommunications regime: framing WSIS

Regime conflicts at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) (EMPA Swiss Federal Laboratories)

The rise and decline of the international telecommunications regime

Bilateral trade agreements: case studies

USA-Chile Free Trade Agreement: Telecommunications (Office of the United States Trade Representative)

Singapore-USA Free Trade Agreement (Foreign Trade Information System (SICE))

Australia/USA Treaty: A loss for cultural diversity (INCD)

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