(*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 1990s were the go-go years of capitalist globalization. During this decade and the next, as foreign ownership rules in telecommunications were altered, German, British, French and Canadian companies were allowed to take stakes in different kinds of US network properties.[7]   

Between the rapid rise of China in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the arrival of the Biden Administration, US international economic policy shifted again. Contested rather than consensual, the new policy direction aimed above all to combat and restrict Chinese capital’s movement into the most profitable zones of the global political economy: digital systems and services. Attempts to ban TikTok in the US formed one part of this wider change. In recent weeks they’ve gained unprecedented strength, as a bill sailed through the House of Representatives demanding that TikTok sever its ties to its Chinese owners if it wishes to continue serving its 170 million US users – with Biden’s support.[8] (Despite its overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House, the bill is now bogged down in the Senate.) 

China hawks in Congress hold that TikTok poses a danger to national security: Its Chinese owners, they assert, may abscond at will with untold reams of data about the personal lives of Americans, while – if they choose – flooding them with propaganda conducive to Chinese interests and/or harmful to official US interests. That TikTok has been used to circulate Palestinian news and views responding to Israel’s genocidal war has undoubtedly helped fuel the official US line.[9] 

Progressives respond that what’s needed is not a ban on TikTok but a thoroughgoing privacy law that will cover all social media, Facebook, Instagram, X, Google’s Youtube and the rest – as well as TikTok. This, they say, will halt the abuses of which all the social media platforms are guilty.

While the progressives are certainly correct, their critique misses the boat. It neglects the essential fact that the fight over TikTok isn’t principally about privacy and national security. It’s about who controls the profit centers of the global political economy. It’s the same fight that led the US to ban the Chinese network equipment company Huawei from operating in the US market, and to restrict US (and allied countries’) exports of tech products, notably high-end semiconductors, to Huawei.[10]

As the US was going after Huawei, Presidents Trump and Biden both issued orders which could be used against Tik Tok.[11] (Former President Trump later flipped on the issue on grounds of his own political self-interest.) While TikTok has yet to be profitable, as of 2024 it possesses more than 1 billion active users globally and ranks fifth (after Facebook’s Instagram) among social media sites – the only non-US social media company listed in the top five.[12] It is another major success story for Chinese digital capitalism.  Proponents of the ban on Chinese ownership are doing everything they can to force TikTok into the US realm of digital capitalism – and to restrict and retard China’s if they cannot.  Privacy and propaganda are mostly beside the point.

Again, a historical parallel is instructive. Historians have long known that, early in the 20th century, the then-new technology of radio became a flashpoint of geopolitical-economic conflict between a rising power – the United States – and the established global hegemon, Britain.[13] Britain had built a lead in radio through the British Marconi company; a subsidiary, American Marconi, controlled the emerging US market. Becoming ever more deeply alarmed and proclaiming a need for national security, US Navy officials pursued increasingly tough measures to restrict American Marconi.  Finally, just after World War I, they declared that they would effectively expropriate American Marconi if its British owners did not sell out to a US corporation. A giant unit of high-tech US capital, General Electric, was selected to integrate the assets of American Marconi into a new subsidiary, the Radio Corporation of America.[14] RCA seemed both to exemplify US national sovereignty and to act as a chosen instrument of US policy in international telecommunications.[16] Foreign ownership restrictions were strengthened and codified in the wake of this experience. 

Today, however, there is a significant wrinkle. TikTok’s parent, ByteDance, is sixty percent owned by international investors including the US companies BlackRock, General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital.[16] Thus behind the legislative vote over the ban there are hidden economic interests at play.  Whether the Senate will bow to hedge funds and other private investors or to the “national security” argument – that is, to the advocates of Chinese containment – remains to be seen. In the meantime, we may ask whether the US Government is selecting new rumored targets – Shein?  Pinduoduo’s Temu?[17]  In March, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stated that the Biden administration would ensure that the US domestic electronic vehicle (EV) industry succeeds in responding to China’s looming EV dominance.[18] Soon thereafter, President Biden called for an investigation into Chinese EVs as a “national threat.”[19]

Unlike Rupert Murdoch, TikTok and other Chinese-owned companies are plainly not our kind of villains.

[1] 47 U.S.C. § 310(a), (b).  Section 12 of the Radio Act of 1927 had barred foreign owners from gaining more than a 20 percent interest in a radio station. Rita Zajacz, “Liberating American Communications: foreign ownership regulations from the Radio Act of 1912 to the Radio Act of 1927,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 48 (2), June 2004.

[2] Section 310(b)(3) prohibits foreign individuals, governments, and corporations from owning more than twenty percent of the capital stock of a broadcast, common carrier, or aeronautical radio station licensee. Section 310(b)(4) establishes a twenty-five percent benchmark for investment by foreign individuals, governments, and corporations in U.S.-organized entities.

[3] Murdoch acquired stations in Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas.  The Boston station was sold immediately to the Hearst Corporation; Michael Iskikoff, “Murdoch Makes Deal to Buy 7 U.S. TV Stations,” Washington Post May 5, 1985. 

[4] Joan Evatt (2013), “The day The Australian’s reporters stopped writing lies,” Independent Australia, March 13; J. W. Shaw, “Mr. Murdoch’s Industrial Relations,” The Australian Quarterly 61, 2 (1989): 300–304. https://doi.org/10.2307/20635538.

[5] Alexandra Marks (1995), “FCC To Let Murdoch Keep Fox TV Stations,” Christian Science Monitor, July 28.

[6] Edmund L. Andrews (1995), “The Media Business; FCC Vote Gives Murdoch Big Victory on Ownership,New York Times, May 5; Jube Shiver, Jr. (1995), “FCC Offers Murdoch a Way Out on Broadcast Ownership Rule,” Los Angeles Times May 5.

[7] British Telecom took a 20% stake in MCI, the second-largest US carrier, in 1994, and took over the company entirely in 1996.  Deutsche Telekom bought VoiceStream Wireless in 2001 and renamed it T-Mobile the next year.  France’s Alcatel merged with Lucent, a diversified multinational telecom equipment maker, in 2006; the combined company’s headquarters were in Paris. Canada’s Nortel purchased Bay Networks, an Ethernet hardware vendor, in 1998.

[8] David McCabe and Sapna Maheshwari (2024), “What to Know About the TikTok Bill That the House Passed,” New York Times, March 13,

[9] Arwa Mahdawi (2024), “Are progressive politics the real reason why US lawmakers are spooked by Tiktok?Guardian, March 16; “Is the Targeting of Tik Tok Actually About Israel?” Institute for Public Accuracy, March 18, 2024.

[10] Dan Schiller (2020),  “Qui Surveille, la CIA ou Huawei ?  Le Monde diplomatique Manière de Voir No. 170, April-May.

[11] Leonardo Dinic (2023), “More Steps to Curtail Huawei and TikTok in the U.S.,” China US Focus, January 11 ; Executive Order 14034—Protecting Americans’ Sensitive Data From Foreign Adversaries; Executive Order 13943—Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat, and Taking Additional Steps To Address the National Emergency With Respect to the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain ; Executive Order 13943—Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat, and Taking Additional Steps To Address the National Emergency With Respect to the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain.

[12] Stacy Jo Dixon (2024), “Most popular social networks worldwide as of January 2024, ranked by number of monthly active users,” Statista, February 2,

[13] Gleason L. Archer (1938), History of Radio to 1926 (New York: The American Historical Society), 150-89; Rupert Maclaurin (1949), Invention and Innovation in the Radio Industry (New York: Macmillan), 99-105; Erik Barnouw (1966), A Tower in Babel, A History of Broadcasting in the United States Volume 1 (New York: Oxford University Press), 57-61.

[14] This complicated history is recounted by Hugh Aitken, The Continuous Wave (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 302-431. Also see Jonathan Reed Winkler, Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 248-60; and Rita Jajacz, Reluctant Power: Networks, Corporations, and the Struggle for Global Governance in the Early 20th Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019), 183-191, 210-212.

[15] This chosen instrument role was subverted by RCA’s own changing priorities, as its strategy pivoted toward the suddenly more profitable industry of broadcasting beginning in the mid-1920s.

[16] Hannah Murphy (2023), “TikTok faces potential US ban if Chinese owners do not sell stake,Financial Times, March 15; Golden Smith (2024), “FirstFT: US investors consider their TikTok options,” Financial Times, March 15.

[17] Eleanor Olcott (2024), “Temu-owner PDD doubles revenues to cap ‘pivotal’ year,Financial Times, March 20; Nicholas Kaufman (2023), “Shein, Temu, and Chinese e-Commerce: Data Risks, Sourcing Violations, and Trade Loopholes,” US -China Economic and Security Review Commission, April 14.

[18] David Lawder (2024), “Yellen says US aims to ensure domestic EV maker success as China boosts exports,Reuter, March 13.

[19] Jim Tankersley (2024), “Biden Calls Chinese Electric Vehicles a Security Threat,New York Times, February 29.

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