My name is Sarah Nelson. I am a historian of 20th-century US and international history.

My research explores the history of debates over what makes information truly “free”— and reveals how these debates were steeped in questions about imperial power, international governance, and global information inequality.

In recent years, “freedom of information” has become a hot-button issue.


We hear debates about it constantly: from public officials, on the news, on Internet forums, and from the heads of the most powerful tech companies.



But what does information freedom actually mean?

We might think that these debates are a recent phenomenon— indigenous to the “Internet era” or the “information age.”

But this question has actually been contentious for a very long time. As long as electronic communications have existed— since the invention of international telegraphy in the mid-19th century— people from all over the world, in lots of different sectors, have debated what it means for information to be “free,” within a world-order where empires have ruled and inequality has reigned.



My research recovers the history of those debates.

In my work, I explore how a variety of different interest groups— from press professionals, to state officials, engineers, and academics— have debated how to build global communications network, and how to regulate international media flows in a way that would make information “free.”

With this website, I aim to share not only insights from my own research, but also to provide tools and resources that may prove helpful to anyone interested in questions of media, communications, and power.

So, there are three main parts to this site.

Research Overview

Here, I provide an overview of my dissertation, “Networking Empire: International Organizations, American Power, and the Struggle over Global Communications in the 20th Century,” written for a public audience.

Visualizing Telecommunications Inequality — a Public Data Repository

Here, I have begun to digitize historical data that reveals the growth of international telecommunications networks for almost 100 years (from 1865 to 1963). Visit this section to access this publicly-accessible data, and to view some of my visualizations of this data.

Media, Telecommunications, and Empire— an International Conference

In early 2021, I created a conference series called “Media, Telecommunications, and Empire: Analytics of Power— old and new— in an Interdisciplinary Field.” The conference brought together top scholars working across the academy to discuss how ‘empire,’ as an analytical category, has informed the academic study of international news, telecommunications infrastructures, global communications governance, and “communications for development.”

Watch recordings of our panels and find more information about our participants here.



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© 2021 Sarah Nelson