(*With apologies to John Le Carre) A bill to expel the massively popular TikTok from the United States unless it cuts its ties to its Chinese owner, ByteDance, has gained unprecedented political momentum. Shrill arguments in favor of the legislation trumpet a need for national security. Foreign ownership of this social media site, they exclaim, is an urgent threat. However, the national security claim obfuscates the real reason behind the campaign against TikTok. A brief historical review of how the US has deployed foreign ownership strictures in communications helps clarify the situation.

The 1934 Communications Act carried over and cemented provisions in place to cover broadcast media, telecommunications and aeronautical media licensees.[1] Foreigners were barred from owning more than a minority interest 25% – in US radio licensees.[2]  These strictures have endured, though with a notorious exception. 

This departure came under Republican President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The beneficiary was Rupert Murdoch. In 1985, the FCC allowed Murdoch – on the verge of exchanging Australian for US citizenship – and his Australian News Corporation to purchase seven large US broadcast stations.[3]

Murdoch’s track-record was already plain. He had attacked journalists’ and printers’ unions and -infamously – intervened strongly in his newspaper’s supposedly independent editorial decisions to help ensure that Labor Party Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was not re-elected in 1975.[4] His newspapers had contributed mightily to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, actively pushing both journalism and politics to the right. And his representation before the FCC was deceptive.[5] Nevertheless, citing a need for “competition,” Reagan’s FCC granted Murdoch a right to enter US major-market broadcasting. This paved the way for him to establish the Fox Broadcasting Network (1986) and, with the aid of the vicious right-winger Roger Ailes, to roll out Fox News a decade later. In 1995, its original decision under challenge from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Murdoch meanwhile having covertly built up his stake in these broadcast properties to 99 percent, a now-Democratic FCC reaffirmed its earlier decision and permitted him to continue owning them.[6] Murdoch is our kind of villain.


The free flow of information was, as IO has discussed, the guiding doctrine of US international communications policy from the 1940s – the era of news agencies and movies – to the late 2010s and internet-enabled transnational data flows.[1] 

In the face of growing restrictions placed on cross-border data flows by numerous other countries, however, the Biden Administration thereafter reduced the purchase of this foundational policy. Free flow continued to guide the US agenda, but for digital trade blocs:  alliances between the US and specific groups of other countries. The US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement and the US-Japan trade pact were leading examples; and the US sought to expand on these, notably through negotiations on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).

While still underlining its ostensible commitment to free cross-border flows in general, in February 2024, the Administration nevertheless moved to hedge this through an Executive Order portending restrictions on access to Americans’ “bulk-sensitive data” by “countries of concern.”[2] If the policy context had come to seem ambiguous in early 2024, however, then this was mostly because, paradoxically, in late October 2023 it had grown startlingly clear. This was when the United States Trade Representative (USTR) suddenly withdrew US support for free cross-border data flow provisions in both the ongoing IPEF and World Trade Organization negotiations – upending the prior US position.[3]

How could this happen? The US had been compelled to attenuate its longstanding free flow policy by virtue of its reduced global power or, put differently, because other countries had succeeded in mandating local storage of data and/or in imposing restrictions on international data flows. In response, the US had “shrunk” its policy to apply to digital trade blocs of allied countries – still collectively accounting for a large share of the global economy.  With the late October action, however, the Trade Representative sabotaged the very policy that the US had hitherto done its utmost to preserve, albeit with a reduced footprint. Why?