Microseconds and Macropolicy

Wriston, Walter B.


International Reaction


While science has been moving the world closer together, the politicians have been busy trying to keep it apart. Many foreign governments fear the effect of electronic information flows on their ability to control the flow of news to their own citizens; some fear the perceived threat to their citizens' personal privacy; some understand that the new technology makes possible the very rapid shift of resources out of their national jurisdiction; some fear the loss of their technology base; some see a threat to their own telecommunications industry or to the monopoly position of their government-owned telegraph and telephone system. Underlying it all, governments wonder if the new information age will shrink their tax base.

As more and more countries come to understand the importance of telecommunications linked to computers, governments are beginning to treat information as they once treated goods. We are seeing the growth of a kind of electronic mercantilism as sovereigns move to protect their power. Many governments are nervous if they cannot read our electronic mail. Some now require that the codes used by private communicators to preserve data privacy be registered with government agencies. It is the same principle governments used to invoke to justify steaming open envelopes, and creates the same policy dilemma.

More often than not, governments all over the world are reacting to the information revolution in the classic manner, by attempting to regulate, tax, and control the new technology. But this is not as easy as it seems. The use of satellites has now made a mockery of national censorship. No customs agent can stop a stream of electrons coming into his country from some 22,000 miles in space. Once people learn about alternatives, there cannot be politics as usual. History teaches that change occurs when people learn there is an alternative to what they believed was their lot in life. A minor but illustrative example of this occurred in Denmark. After allowing the broadcast of a few episodes of the TV program , the government canceled the show. A public outcry forced reinstatement of the broadcast. It is an unhappy fact that the number of governments in the world that encourage the free flow of news and data of all kinds is a small minority.

At the same time, it is becoming increasingly common for critical software and other intellectual property to be stolen from this country by people overseas and then resold back to us. The pharmaceutical industry is a case in point. When the Pfizer company introduced a new anti-arthritic drug (Feldene) in Argentina a few years ago, five Argentine companies already had generic copies of Feldene on the market. This kind of story has been repeated hundreds of times, in many parts of the world. The desire of the less developed countries and Eastern bloc nations to be on the receiving end of technology transfer is as natural as their wish to import vital machine parts. And we are inadvertently helping them. The Freedom of Information Act, designed to help citizens find out about the operations of government, is now being used to discover our latest technology and transfer it abroad without compensation.

  • This document was created from the article, "Microseconds and Macropolicy" by Walter B. Wriston for the March/April 1985 edition of "Regulation: AEI [American Enterprise Institute] Journal on Government and Society." The original article is located in MS134.003.026.00019.
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