For a special summer post, IO is releasing a four part series on the free flow of information doctrine. This is the first in the series.

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With little public notice, a foundation-stone of US global power has begun to crumble. The US free flow of information doctrine rose to dominance during World War II. Though repeatedly challenged, it enjoyed international supremacy for eighty years. Now, however, its hold is finally slipping. To clarify this vital change requires historical elaboration.

The US press became an advertiser-based big business only over the course of the 19th century.  As this occurred, the nation’s leading newspapers embraced a narrow libertarian reading of the protection they gained from the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stated, simply, that Congress should make no law abridging the freedom of the press. If, on one side, this did not preclude government press subsidies then, on the other side, neither did it disallow the possibility that municipalities or states or other communities might impose public responsibilities on the press. Publishers were eager to avail themselves of subsidies, such as massively reduced postal rates for transmission of newspapers through the mails. However, they roundly rejected community responsibilities. Thus, they insisted on an essentially self-serving interpretation: press freedom meant no government interference in their business and editorial affairs – leaving publishers free to pursue their own ownership, political and social class interests.   

Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century, individual newspapers consolidated into increasingly extensive chains. During the 1930s came other salient industry developments.  Newspapers took cross-ownership interests in radio stations. Film studios began to provide regular sound newsreels for screening by the nation’s cinemas. Weekly magazines led by Time, Newsweek, and Life became highly successful news purveyors. Television was being rapidly innovated. All this signified that the working definition of “the press” had come to encompass the media system at large.[1]

By the outbreak of World War II, this multi-media US press – alongside the news agencies that gathered and distributed much of its content – became intent on (additional) global expansion.[2]  Trade groups were organized to accomplish this, under the banner of “freedom of information.” With sustained aid from high government officials, they insisted that “the free flow of information” should prevail throughout the postwar world. They held aloft the banner of the US press’s libertarian conception, which still made no room for any greater social responsibility.  “Freedom of information” now harbored two overriding objectives.[3] 

World War II marked a transformational shift in the global political economy, as the United States dislodged its former capitalist rivals and labored to assert a preponderance of global power against the Soviet Union.[4] Prior to the war, the US press and media industry possessed limited access to the colonial markets controlled by the leading powers and, indeed, to the markets of the leading powers themselves. Three European news agencies – British Reuters, the French Havas, and the German Wolf – had formed a longstanding cartel with which they dominated most of the world news market and attempted to limit inroads being made by the US’s United Press and Associated Press (AP) agencies.[5] US films and recordings enjoyed much greater market access, but they still faced restrictions.

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This post is based on a talk on the panel titled Venturing China’s Globalized Internet at the 2023 International Communication Association. (ICA) preconference. The panel was organized by the contributors of recently published books on the political economy of China’s internet giants: Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent in the Global Media Giants book series. I revised my original talk to provide a little more context drawing from my 2022 book Baidu: Geopolitical Dynamics of the Internet in China. Baidu was primarily a search engine company, but it has diversified its business into artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-driven industrial sectors including self-driving or autonomous cars (AVs), Electric Vehicles (EVs), cloud computing, smart devices etc.

Today, it is extremely challenging to engage in a reasonable debate about the tech sector related to China – a major geopolitical flesh point between the US and China. In the Western mainstream media, the discussions are persistently framed under the themes of national security, spying, censorship, human rights, and authoritarianism vs liberal democracy, but these narrow and self-interested analytical frameworks obfuscate the underlying pollical economy of the Chinese internet industry which is deeply integrated into the US-led global capitalist order.  

In turn, the often-used term “decoupling” needs to be handled carefully. “Decoupling” actually is embedded with a longer process of coupling. The Chinese search giant Baidu, which represents the internet industry in China, sheds light on this decades-long enmeshment – and its implications for current capitalist dynamics. Thus, I’ll talk about Baidu in the context of coupling, geopolitical competition, and “decoupling.”

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Presentation For Delivery to Digital Capitalism Communication Symposium

Üsküdar University

16 May 2023

Dan Schiller

Warm thanks to Rector Nazife Güngör for this invitation, and to Dean Süleyman İrvan for hosting us.[1]

1. Origins and Structure of Digital Capitalism

With the erection of a permanent war economy to support US global power during and after World War II,[2] new digital technologies were innovated and enlisted.

A digitally anchored political-economy gradually emerged.  It strengthened during the 1970s and 1980s, as computer networking expanded and the state authorized major privatization projects.  A massive phase-change was underway.[3] The form and location of production processes, the composition of capital investment, the commodities that generate high profits, the valued categories of labor, the profile of consumption: all were altering. At the same time, long-engraved imperatives of profit-maximization, cost efficiency, and labor control still carried forward. It was, and is, still capitalism – but with a digital character.[4]

New frontiers of commodification based on digital technologies continue to be explored.[5] The transnational companies that control 30% of global production and 80% of world trade are repeatedly rebuilding themselves around digital structures and dynamics; worldwide IT spending was forecast to increase to $4.6 trillion in 2023.[6]  In short, digital capitalism still has plenty of room in which to expand.   

The digital growth pole has been activated generally across every economic sector, not just the familiar consumer marketers – Google, Meta, Amazon, and Apple. Farm machinery manufacturer John Deere outfits tractors with software to collect soil data – in order to sell both tractors and these productivity-enhancing data to agribusiness.[7] The biggest US bank, JP Morgan Chase, boasts an IT staff of 57,000[8] and a tech budget of $14 billion; it also hosts roughly 6,000 apps.[9] Tesla is estimated to have gathered eight times more profit on each of its high-priced, software-saturated vehicles in late 2022 than Toyota.[10]    

Capitalism’s multifaceted crisis tendencies also persist; indeed, fifteen years after the crash of 2007-2008, it is arguable that this rolling catastrophe continues.[11]  In March 2023[12] a new bank panic began.[13] Gigantic black holes of unregulated activity constitute sources of unaddressed financial peril. More than fifty poor countries are facing severe debt crises[14]; and inflation has reached calamitous levels in a number of nations.  Local governments in China suffer from extreme indebtedness, and insolvent property developers there have fallen into managed bankruptcy,[15] while China’s party-state has recently reworked regulations to try to steady things.[16]  So the financial side of today’s digital capitalism is far from secure. 

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In upcoming posts, we shall have things to say about informational aspects of the current world disorder. Likely the most urgent of these pertain to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Why do US leaders deem it worthwhile to undertake the nuclear gamble they are making in Ukraine?  One reason has been publicly asserted: as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated in April , 2022, the US is trying to weaken and destabilize Russia.[1] This goal has been more difficult to accomplish than the US projected; moreover, even partly realized, it has rendered Russia more dependent on America’s adversary, China – Russia’s largest trading partner.[2] Russia brings to its Chinese ally substantial assets: military technology; newly opened Arctic sea lanes for inter-Asian shipping; river passages from northern Russia to the Black Sea[3]; abundant endowments of oil, gas, water, and prospectively arable land; and a land corridor from the Baltic to the Pacific sporting a 2600 mile border with China itself.  In sum, it’s not clear that weakening Russia constitutes a rational objective for any but the obsessive neocons who dominate Washington’s foreign policy.  These cadres, Victoria Nuland, Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and the like, are intent on completing the project of extending The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Russia’s doorstep – a project that Paul Wolfowitz and other forbears initiated during the 1990s.

A second reason for US support for the Ukraine war has, however, gone mostly unmentioned. US policy is motivated by an overarching concern to resubordinate Europe, by “cutting Russia off totally from Germany and the EU, cementing permanent U.S. control of Western Europe.”[4] So far the US has been very effective in actualizing this objective – although it also seems likely to strengthen the far right in European politics as living standards deteriorate.[5] German reliance on Russian energy has been reduced by the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline and related decisions by the German government, removing much of Germany’s ability to waffle on its commitment to the war[6]; and NATO is being enlarged again, to include Finland and – almost certainly – Sweden – even if Europe’s military expenditures have not yet reached the level desired by US leaders. The European Left has meanwhile been fractured, so that a coherent mass peace movement has not arisen to challenge the war.   

The Ukrainian political economy is shot through with graft and corruption. Arms shipments are not exempt from these disabling practices; nor are they necessarily providing equipment most likely to be effective in repelling the Russians.[7] Within this wider matrix, however, the Ukrainians’ fighting strength has been augmented by their reliance on US communications and information technology. 

US targeting information was used by Ukraine less than four months after the start of Russia’s invasion to sink the Russian Navy’s Black Sea missile cruiser, the Moskva.[8] Satellite imagery, NATO aircraft overflight intelligence, and intercepts of Russian military communications were by then flowing to Ukraine’s military in “real time,” according to a Ukrainian official, becoming a “key enabler of the Ukrainian campaign.”[9]

US corporate enterprise also stepped forward to assist. Elon Musk’s privately owned SpaceX satellites have provided broadband communications for a variety of purposes to Ukraine’s military.  In February 2023, SpaceX’s president announced that the company had taken unnamed measures to prevent Ukraine from using its Starlink service to operate offensive drones in the region.[10]  How reliable this announcement was, and whether it came after the fact, are not known. 

The Ukrainians’ reliance on Lockheed-Martin’s HIMARS computer-guided rocket artillery also binds them to a larger information network that is under US control.[11]

In these three instances, US organizations are undeniably parties to the Ukraine war.  Yet it seems unthinkable that the mainstream media, let alone the US Congress – which alone possesses the power to declare war under Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the US Constitution – should demand to hold a formal debate over US participation in this grave and escalating conflict.


[1] Natasha Bertrand, Kylie Atwood, Keven Liptak and Alex Marquardt, “Austin’s assertion that US wants to ‘weaken’ Russia underlines Biden strategy shift,” CNN, April 26, 2022.

[2] Perhaps this is a reason why, by early in 2023, there began to be at least some quasi-official discussion of how to limit the length of the war.  Samuel Charap, Miranda Priebe, “Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” RAND National Security Research Division, PE-A2510-1, 2023. 

[3] Alastair Crooke, “The Most Egregious Mistake,” Strategic Culture Foundation January 23, 2023.

[4] Diana Johnstone, “Demonstrate Together,” Consortium News, February 14, 2023.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, “Getting Closer,” Sidecar, November 7, 2022.

[6] Alexander Zevin and Seymour Hersh, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” Sidecar, February 15, 2023 ; Seymour Hersh, “How America Took Out The Nord Stream Pipeline,” Substack, February 8, 2023.

[7] Andrew Cockburn, “More Magic Weapons for Ukraine!,” Spolis of War, January 25, 2023.

[8] Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Intelligence Helped Ukraine Strike Russian Flagship, Officials Say,” New York Time, May 5, 2022.

[9] Shane Harris, Paul Sonne, Dan Lamothe and Michael Birnbaum, “U.S. provided intelligence that helped Ukraine sink Russian warship,” Washington Post, May 5, 2022.

[10] Joey Roulette, “SpaceX curbed Ukraine’s use of Starlink internet for drones – company president,” Reuters February 9, 2023.

[11] Christopher Caldwell, “Russia and Ukraine Have Incentives to Negotiate.  The U.S. Has Other Plans,” New York Times, February 7, 2023; HIMARS: Protecting our soldiers with combat proven reliability, Lockheed Martin.