By the late 1930s, a global network was up and running.

Cabled and wireless communications connected every inhabited continent.

A thriving global news industry was pumping out information around the clock, from all around the world.

But global access to telecommunications and news was desperately unequal.

Telecom network were creatures of industrializing empires: and global networks had grown according to the political and commercial interests of wealthy states in Europe and North America, and of their white-settler colonial dominions.

Between 1850 and 1900, European imperial powers built vast networks that linked their metropolitan capitals to their colonial outposts in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Pacific.

So, by the 1870s, for example, Great Britain’s network reached India both with cable that ran above the ground and under the sea. By 1866, British telegraph cables linked both northern and southern Africa to Europe, while France and Portugal built networks that reached colonies on Africa’s western coast. Between the 1850s and 1870s, France steadily invaded Indochina (now Vietnam), and built telegraph cables as they went.

Once these networks were built, they were controlled almost entirely by white colonizers.

This meant that local and indigenous populations in the Global South had very little access to or say in how those communication systems were run.

They also had no representation in the international organizations that regulated those networks. In the ITU, for example, places like the Belgian Congo, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Pakistan, Madagascar, or Guyana were represented not by local peoples, but by the white colonists that had taken control of these areas.

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The imperial logics of early telecom networks also meant that it was much easier, and much cheaper, to communicate within imperial systems than between them.

It was faster and cheaper to send a telegram from Saigon to Paris, for example, than it was to send the same message from Saigon to Manila, even though Vietnam and the Philippines were so much closer, geographically.

What did all this mean for the global flow of news?

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© 2021 Sarah Nelson