(*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 strategic role of the Red Sea for imperial communications has been evident at least since the great Indian Rebellion of 1857 – a year before construction began on the Suez Canal, a 120-mile waterway which opened a passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and on to the Indian Ocean. Initially a protest by Indian soldiers against their employer, the East India Company, this anticolonial uprising took control of the old Mughal capital of Delhi and quickly spread to include peasants, artisans, and laborers.[1] Yet appeals by British colonial administrators for reinforcements, sent from Kolkata (Calcutta) on May 18, 1857 and thenceforth conveyed by both ships and telegraphs, reached London only on June 27th – a period of 40 days. This interval was sufficient for the rebellion to sweep through much of northwestern, north and central India, and to ramify across British colonies from Ireland to New Zealand. Savage military reprisals put down the rising; and, in early 1858, the English government signed a fifty-year contract with the new Red Sea and India Telegraph Company to lay a cable to speed communications between England and its South Asian colony.

This particular subsea cable failed, but within just fifteen years repeated improvements made it feasible to send a telegram from England to India in only a few hours.[2] And the strategic significance of the Red Sea route for imperial communications and, indeed, for imperialism more generally, had been amply demonstrated. For many decades to come, this area of the Middle East would intertwine communications, empire, colonial domination – and anticolonial resistance.


Within the wider context of the inter-imperialist conflict that engulfed the world in war in 1914, the British government was determined to extend and consolidate its occupation of territory in the Middle East. British strategy revolved around military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire and Germany, struggles with France, selective alliances with Arab peoples and, crucially, support for Zionism, a political movement seeking to colonize Palestine – a region inhabited by Christians, Jews, and (mostly) Muslims under Ottoman rule.[3]

In affirming the artfully crafted Balfour Declaration of 1917 (named for the then British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour), Britain declared its official support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.  This was, however, not an act of benevolence. The government understood, in the words of a contemporary British leader, that control of Palestine “gives the controller the essential strategic and economic mastery of the communications between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, between Asia and Africa.”[4]

Britain lent support to the Zionist project to wrest for Britain itself informal dominance – to keep the region out of the hands of its imperial rivals, Germany and especially France.  Jerusalem is separated from Port Said – the entrance to the Suez Canal – by a distance of about 170 miles by air and 475 miles by road. Palestine offered a strategic base not only for projecting force over the Suez Canal, but also for commanding trade routes and ensuring access to the vast oil wealth of what is now Iraq.[5] Following World War I Britain gained legitimacy for its program when it was granted a mandate for administering Palestine by the League of Nations – a measure supported by the US.

For the Palestinian people, as had been forecast two decades earlier when Zionism was coalescing into a political force, all of this was predicated on violence. Palestinians repeatedly resisted large-scale Jewish colonization.  And when, in 1948, Britain’s mandate ended and the state of Israel was established, the first major Arab-Israeli War at once commenced – killing and displacing tens of thousands of Palestinians. Palestinians call it the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”


Global capitalism meanwhile continued to mutate and, as the United States took over from Britain as the foremost global and regional power, the character of imperialism also changed – from a tendency to territorial occupation to control over exports of capital and the international circulation of commodities. This only added to the importance of the Red Sea communications route. Submarine cables had long been backbones for the transnational circulation of corporate information;[6] after World War II they began to form the infrastructure of digital capitalism.


After Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Europe’s initial reaction was to throng to the US-led NATO alliance to give support to Ukraine in repelling Russia. Public opinion throughout western Europe swung heavily against Russia, fracturing existing Left formations. These effects led as far as Finland successfully applying for NATO membership and Sweden attempting to complete a parallel bid for membership. NATO itself, meanwhile, further extended its purview beyond the North Atlantic – now all the way to the Asia-Pacific. The war also drove a large increase in defense spending. Military outlays in Europe grew by 13 percent in 2022, with Central and West European countries spending a record $345 billion.[1] 

Yet, nearly from the beginning, cracks appeared in the veneer of European unity, and these have widened as the war has persisted. Turkey – not an EU member but a very important member of NATO – hosted negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to end the war in March 2022, only to see them quashed by the intervention of then UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Turkey also continued to hold up Sweden’s NATO membership, not only demanding a more forceful crackdown against the Kurdish Workers Party but also that the US sell it F-16 fighter jets.[2] Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, joined Turkey in opposing Sweden’s NATO bid; his pro-Russian views are well-known. The victor of Slovakia’s election, Robert Fico, has called for an end to military support for Ukraine.[3]  Poland, whose hostility to Russia is historically engraved, was initially perhaps the greatest war-hawk in Europe; but its attitude toward Ukraine itself has grown antagonistic owing to a grain dispute and, at least for the moment, Polish military shipments to Ukraine have been halted.[4] 

The US recognized the vulnerability of the European front from the war’s start.

Between the early 2000s and 2021 Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, tied itself closely to Russia by becoming ever more heavily reliant on Russian natural gas imports.[5] Months after the war began, the US blew up the Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which were to carry still greater quantities of gas from Russia to Germany. This action resulted, according to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, “from fears in the White House…that Germany and then NATO, for economic reasons, would fall under the sway of Russia and its extensive and inexpensive natural resources. And thus followed the ultimate fear: that America would lose its long-standing primacy in Western Europe.”[6] 

With this act of sabotage against its allies, the US sought, with considerable success, to bring Germany back within the fold. To cope with skyrocketing gas and electricity costs caused mostly by the collapse in Russian gas supplies, Germany announced a “defensive shield” worth 200 billion Euros, to place a brake on consumer gas prices,[7] while the country signed a second 20-year deal with US company Venture Global to import from the US additional liquefied natural gas (LNG).[8]                                                                                                         

Yet, German Chancellor Olof Schulz still remains cautious in adopting US/NATO priorities. He has tied the delivery of German Taurus long-range missiles to Ukraine – which some chancellery officials worry could end up moving Berlin “closer to a direct confrontation with Russia”[9] on the grounds that they will require German technicians to operate – to the US’s own delivery of (ATACMS) long-range missiles. Moreover, French President Macron’s policies on Ukraine have been inconsistent.[10]  

With considerable trepidation, US foreign policy organs are openly discussing the question of whether Europe and the US will abandon long-term support for Ukraine.[11] The EU is set to approve $53 billion to assist Ukraine; however, the European zone faces an economic slow-down. Germany’s economy, Europe’s largest, is expected to shrink this year,[12] and the country has already announced (in July 2023) cuts to social services and most other parts of its government budget.[13] Considering Europe’s increasingly delicate political and economic condition, continuing aid to Ukraine is not guaranteed. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden voices his unwavering support for Ukraine; however, a growing number of Republicans, though historically hawkish in supporting US global militarism, oppose providing aid to Ukraine because they are driven by a nationalist ideology of “America first”[14]: last week, they managed to force the omission of additional Ukraine military aid from a measure the keep the US Government running. If the US permanently reduces military support or other funding for the war effort, it is unlikely that the EU will cover the additional expenses.

The EU’s activities and initiatives in the digital sphere exhibit a somewhat less fraught and complicated dynamic. In this critical realm of the political economy, however, the EU is pursuing a genuinely independent policy.[15] 


Presentation to the Hans Crescent Seminar, London[i]
13 December 2015
Dan Schiller

During the second half of the 20th century, U.S. power was notably deployed in order to generalize capitalist imperatives in and around world communications. The technological revolution that was underway – the digitization of information processing – thus developed within a sharply altering political economy. Its very triumph, however, opened digital capitalism[1] to new geopolitical conflicts.

Digital Capitalism

Aggregate U.S. corporate investment in “Information Processing Equipment and Software” began to accelerate after the recession of the early 1970s.  It is the largest category of capital equipment spending overall and, amounting to $331 billion in 2013, it totals more than the GDPs of all but around 35 countries.[2] Collectively, the largest sectoral investor in information processing equipment and software is the information industry itself – a point I’ll come back to.[3] Network systems and services, however, lace through all sectors of the capitalist political economy: they are the predicate of big capital’s operations and profit projects across the world.  To comprehend this development it must be situated theoretically and historically.

If, as Ellen Wood has explained, the capitalist mode of production is distinctive for separating economic and political power then, paradoxically, this selfsame separation means that capital must depend fundamentally on the state – both to guarantee existing commodity relations, and to impose these relations in new fields to enable capital’s further expansion. [4]  Sweeping political intervention by the U.S. state was the demonstrable prerequisite of escalating corporate investments in information processing and software.

Corporate demands to liberalize and modernize proprietary networks developed domestically during the 1950s and 1960s, and the U.S. Government repeatedly acceded to these demands.[5]  A U.S. push to liberalize and upgrade networks soon also radiated outward. First of all, the U.S. intervened to preempt or to deflect political counter-movements.  U.S. state-directed attacks were waged against import-substitution policies for computerization [“informatics”], notably in Brazil; against European initiatives to restrict corporate trans-border data flows; against what were deemed lax intellectual property laws worldwide; and against the Non-Aligned Movement’s drive for a New International Information Order, which expressly prioritized economic redistribution rather than profit maximization in international communications.[6]

A fundamental feature of this U.S. state offensive – this new imperialism – was to plant capitalist imperatives and -property relations throughout global communications[7] even as it forcefully generalized a U.S.-centric data communications system, the Internet.[8] These, not coincidentally, were the years of the “hyper-power” that saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in China. Some nations opposed (Brazil) or tried to sidestep (France) the Internet’s U.S.-centric control structure; however, they gave way as the U.S. successfully established a worldwide data infrastructure for capital.

The Internet is often heralded as a democratizing force, however, its overriding function has been to deepen and renovate capitalism.  The Internet provides an unprecedentedly wide platform for driving capitalist imperatives into new industries, and restructuring existing industries.  This process is, however, neither democratic nor contradiction-free.