Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Ten parallels between the telegraph and the Internet in international politics

Published on 15 October 2013
Updated on 19 March 2024

My previous blog outlined the main features of cable/telegraph politics. This post will draw ten political parallels between the telegraph and the Internet, two major communication developments of the last two centuries. Historical reflections are a useful reminder of long-term trends, especially in times of the techno-excitement inherent in ‘here and here’. They can also serve as an important notice that there is a risk that enabling technological developments could take a different, and sometimes a dangerous direction for human society.


1. Geography matters

The Internet has not managed to defeat geography, as many argued it would. Geography is alive and kicking. Discussion about the BRICS cable shows this clearly. In the same way that Germany and France tried to avoid the UK as the telegraph traffic hub in the early 1900s, BRICS countries are now trying to find other routes for Internet traffic that does not need to pass via the USA, currently the main Internet hub. In terms of geographical continuity, Gibraltar and Suez remain the major points of Internet traffic as they were 100 years ago for telegraph traffic. Wireless Internet brings new possibilities, but it has not challenged cables as the main carriers of Internet traffic or the importance of geography in their location.


2. Globalisation’s nervous system

Like the Internet has done with modern globalisation, the telegraph served as communication infrastructure of the early globalisation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It led to a dynamic internationalisation of economic activities, which resulted in many developments, including transnational corporations and global markets. For example, after the introduction of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866, the New York and London stock exchanges linked up and frequently exchanged information. This boosted economic activities enormously.


3. New defining technology creates techno-winners and losers

Each epoch has its defining technology that determines economic, social, and political success; control of this defining technology leads towards economic and social power. The telegraph was the defining communication technology 100 years ago, just as the Internet is today. One historically revealing story involves the effect the introduction of the telegraph had on the communication advantage of the big banking family, Rothschild. Prior to the introduction of the telegraph, the Rothschilds had a well-developed communication system connecting the main European economic centres, based on couriers and carrier pigeons. It provided them with a competitive advantage, an advantage that disappeared with the introduction of the telegraph.

It is no surprise that James de Rothschild became a technophobe and was nostalgic for pre-telegraph days: ‘It was a crying shame that the telegraph has been established.’[1] If we replace the word ‘telegraph’ with the word ‘Internet’ his next statement would sound very contemporary: ‘The telegraph meant that even when he went to take the waters for his summer holiday there was no respite from the business: “One has too much to think about when bathing, which is not good”.’

Today, new economic winners are concentrated in Silicon Valley.  More and more Internet industry people are appearing on lists of the richest people in the world. They have also started influencing political processes. Silicon Valley supported the election of President Obama. It has overtaken the primate from the Hollywood entertainment industry, as witnessed in the battle for SOPA, PIPA and ACTA.


4. Techno-suspicion

Some rulers were wary of the potential social impact of the telegraph. For example, the Russian Tsar Nicolas I, considered the telegraph to be ‘subversive’. Afraid of its democratising potential to disseminate information, he declined an offer by Morse to develop the country’s first telegraph lines. As a result, Russia lagged far behind the other major powers, and during World War I this proved disastrous; Russian telegraph lines were too poor to accommodate the communication needs of the Russian army.

In the Internet era, many censorship and filtering techniques aim to control the social and political impact of the Internet.  In addition, cybersecurity threats frighten people (and institutions), especially in tech-laggard[2] countries, making them techno-suspicious and turning them away from fully benefiting from the potential of the Internet.


5. Privacy in the historical kaleidoscope

At the 1875 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference held in St Petersburg, one of the most controversial issues was the control of the content of telegraphic communication. While conference participants from the USA and the UK promoted the principle of the privacy of telegraphic correspondence, Russia and Germany insisted on limiting this privacy in order to protect state security, public order, and public morality. A compromise was reached through an age-old diplomatic technique: diplomatic ambiguity. While Article 2 of the St Petersburg Convention guaranteed the privacy of telegraphic communication, Article 7 limited this privacy and introduced the possibility of state censorship. The United States, which did not participate, refused later on to sign the convention because of ‘the censorship article’.

The geometry of discussion about privacy has changed in the Internet era. Today, Europe is the strongest promoter of privacy and data protection, while the USA has a much more relaxed attitude to the issue. After the Snowden revelations, privacy and data protection are again in the focus of global communication politics, just as they were more than 100 years ago.


6. Open and free communication

If he lived today, US President Wilson would be a hero of civil society, arguing for open and free communication.  After the World War I, at the Paris Peace Conference (1919), the question of telegraphy was firmly on the agenda. Following the overall diplomatic approach to the post-war settlement, President Wilson advocated the establishment of open and free communication on a global level. His main proposal was to consider telecommunications a global public utility, instead of a tool in a global power game. Some cynical commentators argued that this noble US approach was aimed at creating a global policy space that could challenge UK dominance in the field of cable-based communication.


7. Shifting from technical management to high political agendas

In its early days, the telegraph was discussed and managed mainly by technical experts. With more impact on geo-politics and security, it attained a prominent position on diplomatic agendas. Today, we are noticing a shift in the politics of the Internet from telecomm ministries to ministries of foreign affairs, and to the offices of prime ministers and presidents. As with the telegraph a century ago, the Internet has evolved from pure technology to a phenomenon that is reshaping political and social life. In August, triggered by the Snowden revelations, digital politics appeared on the agenda of the UN Security Council. In September, Brazilian president Rousseff, in her speech at the UN General Assembly, outlined the main principles of Brazilian digital politics, increasingly supported by civil society and other players worldwide. Recently, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Dirk Brengelmann as Commissioner for International Cyber Policy. The announcement of his appointment focuses on cybersecurity and Internet freedom, without mentioning technical issues.

Turf battles in the field of Internet politics have started in many countries, with diverse rules. In Brazil, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been a supporter of the multistakeholder approach, while the telecomm ministry and regulators were more inclined towards inter-governmental, ITU-centred processes. In India, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stayed closer to an inter-governmental solution (CIRP proposal) while its ICT and telecom departments wanted to create more space for business influence. These are just a few examples, examples which can be found in other national governments as well.

Again, there are historical parallels with the telegraph era. For example, France’s cable diplomacy, in close cooperation with Germany’s, did not follow the general French diplomacy of close geo-strategic relations with the United Kingdom (Anglo-French Entente Cordiale in 1904). Although the reason for such a move by the French telegraph authorities was strategic, some authors, such as Lesage, used it as an example of the lack of operational coordination in French foreign policy decision-making:

‘The prolonged disagreement between the general principles of French diplomacy and the procedures of the telegraphic policies come, I believe, from the fact that in this country, each ministry has its own foreign policy: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has one, the Ministry of Finance has another…. The Postal and Telegraph Administration also has, from time to time, a foreign policy; as it so happened, these past few years, that, without being entirely hostile to England, it demonstrated a strong inclination for Germany.’[3]


8. Neutrality – from the telegraph to the Internet

Neutrality remains a word in constant use in telecommunication negotiations. One of the underlying questions of the early days of the ITU (after the Paris Conference in 1865) was the status of submarine telegraph cables in times of conflict. France, later joined by Germany and other states, requested confirmation of the neutral status of submarine telegraphic cables in the event of conflict. The main opponent was Great Britain, since it controlled most submarine cables and the technology for managing them (including cable-cutting tools), giving it a considerable strategic advantage. While subsequent international telegraph conferences established rules for the protection of cables from fishing trawlers and ships’ anchors, cables remained outside the regulations covering the conduct of war.

Today, network neutrality does not refer to cables, but to the content which is carried over them. Network neutrality argues that all Internet traffic should be treated in the same way regardless of the political and economic interests of the owners of the cables and other Internet businesses.   


9. A long history of multistakeholderism

Multistakeholderism was not invented recently. Since the very beginning, the ITU has had to deal with participation of stakeholders other than national states. One problem involved the question of how to involve the UK and the USA, which did not have state telegraph monopolies. The main operators were private telegraph companies. This problem was considerable, given the fact that most international traffic and development went through the UK and the USA. Private companies were invited to participate at the International Telegraph Union Conference in Rome (1871-1872) albeit without the right to vote. Although the private sectors from the UK and the USA participated fully in establishing the subsequent structure of the ITU, the tension between state- and privately-run telecommunication systems has remained ever since.

The question of multistakeholderism is prominent in Internet politics. In planning for the next IGF in Bali (October 2013), the most popular workshop topic is multistakeholderism. The great promise of multistakeholderism as a new way of managing global affairs, which emerged from the WSIS process (2003-2005), is increasingly being suppressed by the critical view that multistakeholderism could be a smoke screen, hiding specific business and political interests. The question of striking the right balance between inter-governmental and multistakeholder approaches and defining the roles and responsibilities of the different stakeholders will be high on the agenda of global Internet politics.


10. Technology and diplomacy – handle with care

In 2014, we will mark the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna, one of the most successful diplomatic events in history, and 100 years of the start of the World War I, one of the grand failures of diplomacy.

Like the Internet today, the telegraph played a vital role in shaping geo-politics between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreak of World War I. While the telegraph enabled faster communication among capitals, it also created confusion and misunderstandings.

Some authors, such as Stephen Kern, argue that ‘telegraph confusion’ contributed to the July Crisis and the outbreak of World War I in 1914: ‘This telegraphic exchange at the highest level dramatised the spectacular failure of diplomacy, to which telegraphy contributed with crossed messages, delays, sudden surprises, and unpredictable timing.’

One of a few lessons that we have learned from the telegraph and the events of 1914, is that speed and immediacy do not always provide positive results. The telegraph 100 years ago, like the Internet today, was a great enabling tool. But at the same time, inexperienced use of the telegraph hastened sleepwalking – as one author put it – into the catastrophe of World War I. This remains a powerful warning for our time!


[1] Ferguson N (1999) The House of Rothschild: The World’s Banker, 1849-1999. New York: Viking, p. 64.

[3] Lesage C (1915) La rivalite franco-britannique. Les cables sous-marins allemands (Paris) p. 257-258; quoted in:  Headrick DR (1991) The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, p. 110.


Related events

Load more

Related resources

Load more

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog