Our Right to the Sky

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by DeeDee Halleck
January, 1995

In the 1970's the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was the forum for a debate about communication equity: many countries in the so-called "developing" world had banded together, as part of the Non-aligned Movement, to demand parity of access to information resources for a "New World Information Order." The ITU debate at the World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) of 1978 centered around the reservation of radio frequency spectrum space, especially satellite paths, for the "developing" countries. At that time there were few entities in the world that had the technical ability to utilize this global resource: the U.S., USSR and France were the only countries with full capacity to launch communication satellites. However, other countries were afraid that if they did not reserve space, they would be hampered as to future development. They were especially concerned about leaving open the possibility of having their satellites in the highly desirable equatorial orbit, called "geostationary" which was needed to have a stable signal for specific regions.

The staid ITU which had been designating global telecom slots for years without any one taking notice was rocked with charged discussions that cut to the real issues: the commercialization and militarization of space resources by large and powerful countries and multinational corporations. This put into question the right to communicate and the need for justice on technological issues. These discussions found a voice in the MacBride Report, One World, Many Voices, a report resulting from UNESCO research into information distribution. The MacBride Commission was so controversial that the United States virtually stopped payment to the United Nations for several years in protest. The result was a shift at UNESCO away from such "controversial" projects.

The debate about information justice took place fifteen years ago, before many countries had either satellite launching capability or programs and information to distribute. It is only now, with the implementation of Murdoch's Star TV in India, Latin America and almost every corner of the world and with the global marketing of GAP and Coca-Cola through MTV, that we realize how important those discussions were. Both the ITU debate and the UNESCO/MacBride intervention were the opening salvos in a continuing struggle for information justice that will only grown in importance. Because of increased access to consumer-priced information tools by individuals and groups at the grass roots level, regional producers of small format video and communicators are beginning to understand the potential for democratic exchange of ideas and culture that is possible with this technology. When the MacBride Commission talked about community communication, they did not have the examples of TV Maxambomba from Brazil or the Video Farm in Malaysia, or the use of the Internet by the Zapatistas in Chiapas. In a sense, those discussions happened too early, too soon. In the U.S. in the mid 1970's a group called Public Interest Satellite Association was formed to work towards having non-commercial space on satellites. At that time, satellite services were just beginning and it was hard to project what the future might bring. It is important, at this time, to rethink that struggle in the light of the impressive evidence of local, non-commercial work that is being produced around the world and here in the U.S.

The question is how can the grassroots use of information technology be cultivated in the "vast wasteland" of global commercial (and military) hegemony of technological resources? Perhaps it is time to look at the ITU and to reinsert the public into their agenda. The ITU was organized before the United Nations, as a global agency to assign radio frequencies to prevent interference between nations. It has the task of designating both global spectrum and satellite paths. Both of these resources are essential infrastructure for any telecommunications project. At the current time, most of this supposedly global resource has been assigned to commercial entities and military users. With the collapse of the Eastern Block, the demise of the Non-Aligned Movement and the privatization of national telecommunications agencies, there is no organized resistance to the commercialization of the world telecommunications infrastructure. This is why the Murdochs and the MTVs of the world can have free access to their target "markets: we are in the bull's eye.

An example of how communities can successfully "tax" corporations to reconfigure communication infrastructure is the public access movement in the United States. Begun in the early seventies, community groups and visionary city officials were able to extract from cable corporations provisions that ensure public access to cable channels and equipment. Although this movement has been ridiculed in the popular press in the US (a press for the most part owned by cable corporations!) it has flourished in many cities and provides a model for the rest of the world as to how excess communication profits can be directed into "affirmative action" for information equity.

As community organizations around the world wake up to the importance of communications issues, perhaps we can look to unions and NGO's to become involved in this important struggle. Multinational corporations are exploiting workers across borders, so it is self-preservation that will force workers in these industries to begin to communicate with each other. Several unions now have pilot projects in this area. Workers in Brazil are communicating via pictures of working conditions and workplace safety with Japanese workers in the same corporation. Environmental organizations are realizing that they need the global reach of the Interment to track down such things as rain forest destruction and toxic waste. Environmental and worker organizations need to take up the banners for global non-profit communication resources. They can be important allies in the future information struggle.

We need an international forum to formulate possible structural modes that could address our rights in this area. What better forum than an International Telecommunications Union, charged to oversee the global infrastructure? As nation states have privatized their communication systems, ITU on transborder transmissions have held little consequence and the corporations have jumped into the vacuum in this international forum. However, it is not too late to reassert the need for an authentic public participation in this crucial forum. However, it is not too late to reassert the need for an authentic public participation in this crucial forum. What better representatives to these organizations than those of us who daily work at the community level to foster grassroots communication? The local and regional models of collaboration and participation can be re-formulated to design a global system of information resources that sees humanity not a markets to be exploited, but as participant citizens. Global deliberations have come to agreement on such issues as saving the whales and on ozone depletion. Can a global standard of participatory communication be addressed by asserting the public nature of global information resources, such as earth orbits and spectrum?

A research project such as the MacBride Commission would have quite a bit to study these days. World communications have expanded so quickly that we have hardly had time to understand what is going on. In this rapidly changing environment we need to think of ways to protect democratic communication. We need to examine these models of participation and think about whether there might be ways of encouraging and subsidizing them by regulations imposed in the global arena such as the ITU, UNESCO, or perhaps even the World Court.

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Addendum: Since this piece was written, an international non-profit group of communications academics and practitioners, headquartered in MacBride's homeland of Ireland, has formed the MacBride Roundtable, which, under the leadership of Sean O'Siochru, has begun talks with the ITU about having NGO's participate in a formal way in that organization. It turns out that the ITU is now an official United Nations organization, and as such, is required by the UN charter to have participation by non-governmental organizations. How this is formulated is being negotiated, and there are other complications that may limit the powers of the ITU. With the redefinition of information as a commodity, the World Trade Organization is beginning to take over some of the regulatory functions that had been done by the ITU. The WTO has no democratic, representative basis, such as UN organizations are required to have, and will be more difficult to convince about the benefits of democratic communication.

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