In a stroke of good luck, IO has been able to obtain syllabi for North American courses in the political economy of communication offered by historical and contemporary leaders in this field:  Dallas Smythe, Herbert Schiller, Vincent Mosco, and Janet Wasko. Smythe’s and Herbert Schiller’s syllabi were each given to Dan Schiller nearly fifty years ago; while Professors Mosco and Wasko kindly sent us theirs for this special posting.  All apart from Herbert Schiller’s are graduate course syllabi. The syllabi reflect thinking and pedagogy in the political economy of communication over a period of sixty years.  They offer a glimpse of both the diverse range of perspectives enfolded in this tradition, and some of the changes and continuities that have marked it. 

On August 9, President Joe Biden signed a long-anticipated Executive Order to restrict US outbound financial investments in a “narrow set of technologies” in “countries of concern” – China including the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong and the Special Administrative Region of Macau.[1] The Order covers three industries: semiconductors and microelectronics, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. This idea of limiting outbound investment came up during the Trump Administration as part of The Foreign Investment Review Risk Modernization Act of 2018,[2] but was removed from the bill due to pressure from the business sector.[3] There followed a series of measures against China focused on the tightening of export controls. With its embrace of restrictions on outbound investment, the new Executive Order constitutes a stunning reversal of US policy, which for decades has pressed coercively for open cross-border investment. Thus, it offers another sign that the US is turning away from freedom of investment and trade and toward digital protectionism.

The new rules mostly target US venture capital, private equity and joint venture investment, the key drivers of the US/China integration that nurtured the expansion of the Chinese internet sector even as they also enriched US investors. With the current geopolitical tension, US venture capital investment into China has already dropped to a 10-year low at $1.3 billion, down from a high of $14.4 billion in 2018.[4] Private equity plummeted to $ 1.4 billion in the first half of 2023 from a peak $48.48 billion in 2021.[5] It is an open question whether the Executive Order will be sufficient to choke off China’s tech power and Chinese tech start-ups from US capital;however, this move is sure to intensify the existing geopolitical competition and further divide the two largest global economies.

The Biden administration has stated that “national security risk” is the reason behind the measures, emphasizing that these are “narrowly targeted actions to protect our national security.”[6] It is clear, however, that the rationale is economic as well as military. It is intended to further contain and retard China’s tech power in advanced technology and, reciprocally, to make more room for the US’s own market and strategic interests in this key field.

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In the world’s number-two economy, China, the party-state retained control over its national internet from the outset (the 1990s).  During recent years, China’s Data Security Law, alongside its Personal Information Protection Law and its high-level regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, have constructed an evolving framework for close supervision of China’s internet – and for data flows out of and into China.  Other nations, notably in southeast and west Asia, are adopting elements of the Chinese model of internet governance.[1]  Additional countries, including Russia, have strengthened state controls over their national internets.  Meanwhile, citing a variety of factors, at least sixty states have staged internet shutdowns.[2]  Thus, obstacles to unrestricted commercial data flows from and to the US have proliferated. 

In addition, alongside a growing number of other states China and Russia also have been trying to win governmental authority to regulate the global internet – as previous telecommunications networks have been regulated – through multilateral organizations, especially the International Telecommunication Union.  Thus far, they have not succeeded: the US model of “multi-stakeholderism,” which signifies loose control by big corporate capital and the US government – retains its hold.  But the US approach of multi-stakeholderism has been placed on the defensive.  The world economic crisis of 2008 and the historic process of geopolitical-economic redivision that followed it are strengthening divergent nation-state interests.

Evident as well are structural changes, of varied kinds.  During the 1990s – the second highpoint of US global power – the infrastructure of the cross-border internet was based largely in the United States, and most international internet data was transported through the US no matter its origin or destination. However, by the late 2010s the morphology of this worldwide distribution system no longer looked as it had a quarter-century before. The internet’s infrastructure had been expanded and reconfigured.  The network of subsea cables and internet exchanges was extended and thickened. US social media companies had set up data centers outside the United States, to attain faster and cheaper access to foreign markets.  Some powerful new internet companies became established in China. National regulations had mandated that data collected within a country be stored within that country’s jurisdiction; by 2023, 75% of all nations had implemented some kind of data localization rules.[3] Economic policies and antitrust protections, privacy strictures, and national security measures crisscrossed and combined in complex ways to engender these assertions of jurisdictional sovereignty.

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