Removing barriers to global information flows has been the most complex issue American digital diplomacy has dealt with in recent decades. The United States played a unique role in bringing the subject to international attention in the 1940s. It has actively pursued the issue ever since, with policies and actions that at times have met with resistance from almost every other country on earth.
The issue involves the right to send and receive information in any form across borders. Limited largely to printed materials in the past, the subject has been expanded in recent decades to include a wide range of electronic channels, from television to the Internet.
American advocacy of open information flow challenges long-standing claims of national sovereignty, in particular a government’s right to control communications channels and the information they transmit. This U.S. stance is often seen by foreign governments as interference in their internal affairs, a high-handed attempt to extend First Amendment principles and practices to the rest of the world.
U.S. free-flow policy has a strong ideological base. But it also includes more mundane interests. One of these is the reduction of communications and information barriers to U.S. international trade. This factor has become more important in recent decades for two reasons. The first is to support the growth in the export of American communications goods and services, collectively the biggest item in the country’s overseas trade package. The second reason is to assure efficient communications access for U.S. enterprises operating abroad, either as traders or as offshore producers of goods and services. Both these economic needs have been