In the early 21st century, notions of imperialism have gained significance with the rapid growth of platform technologies. Platforms, such as social network sites (sns s, e.g., Facebook), search engines (e.g., Google), smartphones (e.g., iPhone), and operating systems (e.g., Android) are known as digital intermediaries, which have greatly influenced people’s daily lives.
The digital platform has emerged “as an increasingly familiar term in the description of the online services of content intermediaries, both in their self-characterizationsand in the broader public discourse of users, the press and commentaries”(Gillespie 2010, 349). Due to the importance of platforms – not only as hardware architecture but also as software frameworks that allow software to run– for the digital economy and culture, several countries have developed theirown sns s and smartphones; however, only a handful of Western countries,primarily the u.s., have dominated the global platform market and society.
The hegemonic power of American-based platforms is crucial because Google, Facebook, iPhone, and Android have functioned as major digital media intermediaries thanks to their advanced roles in aggregating several services.
The u.s, which had previously controlled non-Western countries with its military power, capital, and later cultural products, now seems to dominate the world with platforms, benefitting from these platforms, mainly in terms of capital accumulation. This new trend raises the question whether the u.s., which has always utilized its imperial power, not only with capital and technology, but also with culture, to control the majority of the world, actualizes the same dominance with platforms.
The primary goal of the chapter is to historicize a notion of imperialism in the 21st century by analyzing the evolutionary nature of imperialism, from 1)
Lenin’s imperialism, through 2) cultural imperialism, 3) information imperialism, and finally 4) platform imperialism. It then addresses whether or not weare experiencing a new notion of imperialism by mapping out several corecharacteristics that define platform imperialism, including the swift growthand global dominance of sns s and smartphones.
It especially examines the capitalization of platforms and their global expansion in the digital age. Iteventually endeavors to make a contribution to the discourse of platform imperialism as a new form of imperialism, focusing on the nexus of great powers encompassing nation-states and transnational corporations (tnc s), such asGoogle and Apple. The chapter finally discusses whether platform imperialismis useful for explaining the current power relations between the u.s. and non-Western countries.
2 The Evolution of Imperialism in the 20th and the 21st Centuries
The contemporary concept of imperialism is much different from the discourse developed in the early 20th century when it had been primarily advanced by classical, Marxist-inspired theories of imperialism (e.g., Kautsky, Lenin, and Luxemburg).
From a Marxist perspective, imperialism is what happens when two forms of competition – the economic struggle among capitals and geopolitical rivalries between states – fuse (Callinicos 2007, 70).
One of the central arguments of the Marxist tradition of thinking on imperialism is that there is an intrinsic relation between capitalism and expansion, and that capitalist expansion inevitably takes the political form of imperialism (Marx 1867).
Building on and modifying the theories of Karl Marx, there are several renditions of imperialism in the critical theory tradition, and Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism (1917) provides an excellent place to start discussing imperialism, because the Leninist theory of imperialism has exerted a considerable impact on the current era.
What Lenin emphasized almost one hundred years ago cannot be applied directly to the contemporary era due to vastly different social and economic conditions, as well as a different technological milieu. However, it is certainly worth trying to see whether Lenin’s concepts can be applied to the 21st century situation.
Most of all, Lenin argued that modern imperialism (or capitalist imperialism) constitutes a different stage in the history of capitalism. “The first stage was the competitive form of capitalism characterized by relatively small-scale enterprises, few of which dominated their market. That is the form of capitalism that mostly existed in Marx’s day” (Harrison 2007).
The newer stage of capitalism, however, is characterized by huge monopolistic or oligopolistic corporations (Lenin 1917). In his pamphlet, Lenin remarked, “if it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly state of capitalism” (Lenin 1917, 265).
The key to understanding is that it was an economic analysis of the transition from free competition to monopoly. For Lenin, imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism, and imperialism is a new development that had been predicted but not yet seen by Marx.
What Lenin wanted to emphasize was that, at the fundamental economic level, what had most changed was that there were major aspects of monopoly in this new stage of capitalism, and that whether or not the consolidation of companies had reached the point of there being a single survivor in each industry. That is, even if there still are several huge companies in each industry, they tend to collude and jointly control the market to their mutual benefit (Harrison 2007, 1, 10).
Later, he gave a more elaborate five-point definition of capitalist imperialism, which emphasizes finance-capital – the dominant form of capital. The criteria are; 1) the concentration of production and capital developed to such a stage that it creates monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; 2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of finance capital of a financial oligarchy; 3) the export of capital, which has become extremely important, as distinguished from the export of commodities; 4) the formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves; and 5) the territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers (Lenin 1917, 237).
Based on these five characteristics, Lenin defined imperialism as: “capitalism at that stage of development at which the domination of monopolies and finance capital is established: in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all the territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.” Lenin, 1917, 237.
As Lenin’s five-point definition of imperialism explains, finance capital uses the state machinery to colonize the periphery. In the periphery, capitalists would use oppressed peripheral labour to produce primary commodities and raw materials cheaply and create an affluent stratum (peripheral elite) to consume expensive commodities imported from the core, and undermine indigenous industry (Galtung 1971).
For Lenin, imperialism is the power struggle for the economic and political division of the world, which gives rise of a transitional dependence between rentier states and debtor states: the epoch of the latest stage of capitalism shows us that certain relations between capitalist associations grow up, based on the economic division of the world; while parallel to and in connection with it, certain relations grow up between political alliances, between states, on the basis of the territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the struggle for spheres of influence. Lenin 1917, 239.
Indeed, Lenin himself implicitly discussed the role of the nation-state; and his notion of state was part of strong power, which included also transnational capitals, and his argument for a strong state was a Commune worker state. The Commune was an armed and organized revolutionary section of the Parisian working class, but it was not a state (Lenin 1964; Rothenberg 1995). What Lenin described was that both economic rivalry and military conflicts are indicative as conflicts for hegemony between great powers that constitute essential features for imperialism. In his statement, great powers are not necessarily nationstates, because great powers are powerful actors, meaning that they can also be corporations as well as nation-states (Fuchs 2011a, 198). Though, in Lenin’s conceptualization imperialism is essentially associated with a system of relations and contradictions between nation states (Liodakis 2003, 4).
Several new-Marxists (Galtung 1971; Doyle 1986) have also emphasized nation-states as major actors in imperialism theory. For them, imperialism involves the extension of power or authority over others in the interests of domination and results in the political, military, or economic dominance of one country over another (Wasko 2003). In other words, imperialism would be conceived of as a dominant relationship between collectivities, particularly between nations, which is a sophisticated type of dominant relationship (Galtung 1971, 81).
Imperialism or empire can be therefore defined as “effective control, whether formal or informal, of a subordinated society by an imperial society” (Doyle 1986, 30). Therefore, while admitting that Lenin’s definition has greatly influenced our understanding of global capitalism, we should update theoretical arguments in order to re-engage with Lenin’s theory of imperialism today (Fuchs 2010b). One way to do so is to take Lenin as a theoretical impetus for the contemporary theorization of platform imperialism.
3 Cultural Imperialism from Lenin’s Fourth Characteristic
Beginning in the early 20th century, media scholars have developed imperialism theory in the contexts of several different areas, including culture and technology. Media theoreticians have especially developed Lenin’s fourth point of imperialism, primarily focusing on the major role of big companies that dominate the economy.
As Lenin (1917) argued, these big corporations, cartels, syndicates, and trusts first divided the home market among themselves and obtained more or less complete possession of the industry in their own country. “But under capitalism the home market is inevitably bound up with the foreign market. As the export of capital increased, and as the foreign and colonial connections and spheres of influence of the big monopolist associations expanded in all ways, things naturally gravitated towards an international agreement among these associations, and towards the formation of international cartels” (Lenin 1917, 266).
Information industries and services, including both audiovisual and information and communication technologies (icts) industries, are no exception from this inequal economic geography (Fuchs 2010a). Therefore, one can say that theories of communication imperialism and cultural domination have described Lenin’s fourth characteristic of imperialism in relation to media and culture: the domination of the information sphere by large Western corporations (Fuchs 2010a; Said 1993; Galtung 1971; Schiller 1969).
Such concepts focusedon the ownership and control, structure and distribution of media content (and the media industries) in one country by another country (Fuchs 2010a;Boyd-Barrett 1977) or primarily by the u.s. (Schiller 1976). This updated versionis suited for theoretically describing Lenin’s dimension of corporateeconomic domination in the attempt to apply imperialism theory to informational capitalism.
The debate over imperialism in media studies intensified beginning in the mid-1970s. Several media scholars, including H. Schiller (1976), debated the dominance in international cultural exchange when the international communication system mainly expanded by supplying television programs and motion pictures.
They argued that “the international communication system was characterized by imbalances and inequalities between rich and poor nations, and that these imbalances were deepening the already existing economic and technological gaps between countries” (unesco 1980, 111–115).
Schiller (1976) identified the dominance of the u.s. and a few European nations in the global flow of media products as an integral component of Western imperialism, and dubbed it cultural imperialism in the following way: “the concept of cultural imperialism describes the sum of processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominant center of the system” (1976, 9–10).
Guback (1984, 155–156) also argued, “the powerful u.s. communication industry, including film and television as well as news, exerts influence, sometime quite considerable, over the cultural life of other nations.” These scholars defined cultural imperialism as the conscious and organized effort taken by the Western, especially u.s. media corporations to maintain commercial, political, and military superiority.
Those Western multinational corporationsexerted power through a vast extension of cultural control and domination,and thus saturated the cultural space of most countries in the world, which was claimed to have eliminated and destroyed local cultures by installing a new dominant culture in their place (Jin 2007).
What is also important in the cultural imperialism thesis is the major role taken by the u.s. government. As discussed, media scholars have developed cultural imperialism primarily based on Lenin’s fourth characteristic of imperialism, which emphasized the primary role of big corporations, in this case, major u.s. media and cultural companies; however, the push by the large cultural, media and information industries corporations into markets and societies around the world was also propelled by strong support from the u.s. government.
The u.s. government’s initiative and support for its culture industry has a long history, and this strategy has emphasized the importance of information-based products, making the u.s. State Department a powerful government agent on behalf of the cultural sector (Miller et al. 2001). Given that much of the enormous revenues generated by the u.s. cultural industry have come from foreign markets, “the liberalization of the global cultural market is very significant for the u.s. government” (Magder 2004, 385).
The u.s. government has extensively supported Hollywood by driving other countries to open their cultural markets, which means the us government has been deeply involved in the cultural trade issue by demanding that other governments should take a hands-off approach in the cultural area. Several non-Western economics have been targeted by the u.s. due in larger part to the increasing role of emerging markets, such as China, Russia, Korea, Brazil, and India. For example, Avatar’s – a Hollywood movie released in 2010 – overseas income of $915 million significantly outpaced comparable domestic action, more than doubling its $430.7 million domestic take in the u.s. and Canada (Hollywood Reporter 2011).
The restructuring of the global film sector was conducted through the use of larger power relations and patterns after World War ii, with initial moves beginning prior to wwii. Since World War ii, u.s. policy has generally supported the liberalization of international trade – that is, the elimination of artificial barriers to trade and other distortions, such as tariffs, quotas, and subsidies that countries use to protect their domestic industries from foreign competition (Congressional Budget Office 2003).
The u.s. government sought and eventually secured the liberalization of the audiovisual sector in the first General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (gatt) negotiations in 1947. As Western countries began to settle on the arrangements that would govern the post-war world, cinema was high on the list of outstanding issues, and Hollywood wanted to restore its overseas markets (Magder 2004).
The u.s. government alongside major film/tv corporations has intensified its dominance in the global cultural market, and cultural imperialism has been one of the primary practices of Lenin’s imperialism in different contexts in the 20th century, of course, until recent years.
The new media sector is not much different. Facebook has rapidly increased its revenue from advertising in foreign countries, including several emerging markets, due to the soaring number of users in those markets (more than 1.3 billion in the world as of March 2014), as will be detailed later. Western-based game corporations have also enjoyed profits from the global markets. New media corporations alongside cultural industries corporations have benefited from global capitalism paved by the nexus of the u.s. government and mega media tncs.
4 The Nexus of Globalisation and Information Imperialism
Since the early 1990s, two historical developments – the rapid growth of new technologies and the development of globalization – have greatly influenced the concept of imperialism. To begin with, as globalization theory has evolved over the last decade or so, contemporary theories of imperialism and global capitalism can be categorized on a continuum that describes the degree of novelty of imperialism (Fuchs 2010a).
At the end of the continuum there are theoreticians who argue that imperialism, including cultural imperialism no longer exists today and that a post-imperialistic empire has emerged. Several media scholars have indeed made a case against the cultural imperialism thesis.
Straubhaar (1991) emphasizes that national cultures can defend their ways of life and, in some respects, even share their images with the rest of the world.
Sparks (2007, 119) points out, “in the place of a single, u.s.-based production center dominating the whole of the world trade in television programs, it was increasingly argued that technical and economic changes were rendering the world a more complex place, in which there were multiple centers of production and exchanges flowing through many different channels.”
Several other scholars also convincingly stress the discontinuity between globalization in the 21st century and times past (Negri 2008, Robinson 2007, Hardt and Negri 2000). Hardt and Negri (2000) point out that imperialism, which was an extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their own boundaries, is over, because no nation could ever be a world leader in the way modern European nations were in the midst of 19th and early-20th centuries versions of globalization.
Hardt and Negri develop the term empire instead of imperialism to describe the contemporary form of the global order and argue that empire is a system of global capitalist rule that is altogether different from imperialism:
“in contrast to imperialism, empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers.” (hardt and negri 2000, xii-xiv).
Robinson (2007, 7–8) also argues, “capitalism has fundamentally changed since the days of Lenin due to the appearance of a new transnational capitalist class, a class group grounded in new global markets and circuits of accumulation, rather than national markets and circuits.” Robinson claims, “the imperialist era of world capitalism has ended” (2007, 24).
He believes that tnc s are much different from national corporations because tnc s have been free from nation-states.
More importantly, in the midst of the globalization process, some theoreticians claim that the core-periphery dichotomy by Lenin and new Marxists does not work anymore because it is too simplistic. Hardt and Negri (2000, xii) especially argue that “theories of imperialism were founded on nation states, whereas in their opinion today a global empire has emerged, and imperialism no longer exists with the demise of nation-states,” although they do not explain in detail as to why they think that Lenin limited his concept of imperialism to the extension of national sovereignty over foreign territory (Fuchs 2010b).
In fact, “the nation state-centeredness of their own narrow definition of imperialism as the expansive process of the power of the nation state through policies of export of capital, export of labour power and constitution-occupation of areas of influence” (Negri 2008, 34) bears little resemblance to Lenin’s definition (Fuchs 2010b, 841), because Lenin’s emphasis is on finance capital, which is capital controlled by banks and employed by industrialists. Again, Lenindiscussed the significant role of nation-states as colonizers and rentier states.However, economic interdependence and de-colonization do not mean the demise of nation-states, nor automatic de-territorialization.
Meanwhile, others argue that contemporary capitalism is just as imperialistic as imperialism was 100 years ago or that it has formed a new kind of imperialism (Fuchs 2010a; Harvey 2007; Wood 2003). As Ellen Wood (2003, 129) points out, the new imperialism that would eventually emerge from the wreckage of the old would no longer be a relationship between imperial masters and colonial subjects but a complex interaction between more or less sovereign states. While the u.s. took command of a new imperialism governed by economic imperative, however, this economic empire would be sustained by political and military hegemony.
The stress is, therefore, on continuity rather than fundamental change (Harvey 2003, 2007; Wood 2003). Unlike the emphasis on the coercive power of nationstates that Hardt and Negri focus on, “the harmonization of capitalist space relies on the soft power of consent and the emulation of models of development” (Winseck and Pike 2007, 8).
Although contemporary aspects of imperialismcannot be considered in the same way as set out in Lenin’s understandingof imperialism, contemporary critical scholars believe that “the notion ofimperialism still functions as a meaningful theoretical framework to interpretthe world which was globalized neo-liberally” (Fuchs 2010a, 34).
Many theoreticians have especially argued that the differential power relations associated with globalization are a continuation of past forms of Western imperialism that created the persistent differentiation between the First and Third Worlds (Miller 2010; Amin 1999). Harshe (1997) describes globalization and imperialism as intertwined and characterized by unequal cultural and intellectual exchanges. Grewal (2008, 7) also points out, “the assertion that globalization is imperial has lately become the subject of mainstream discussion in the u.s. and elsewhere; it is no longer a charge made by anti-globalization activists alone.”
Alongside globalization, the rapid growth of icts has influenced the change and continuity of the notion of imperialism. The connection of imperialism and the information sector is not peculiar for a new form of imperialism. Boyd-Barrett (1980, 23) has shown that “already in the 19th and early 20th century the big news agencies Havas, Reuters and Wolff were based in imperial capitals, and their expansion was intimately associated with the territorial colonialismof the late nineteenth century.” At the time of Lenin, they served as governmentpropaganda arms in the First World War.
Later, Winseck and Pike (2007)discuss with the example of the global expansion of cable and wireless companies(e.g. Western Union, Eastern Telegraph Company, Commercial CableCompany, Anglo American Telegraph Company or Marconi) in the years1860–1930 that at the time of Lenin there was a distinct connection betweencommunication, globalization, and capitalist imperialism. They argue:
the growth of a worldwide network of fast cables and telegraph systems, in tandem with developments in railways and steamships, eroded some of the obstacles of geography and made it easier to organize transcontinental business. These networks supported huge flows of capital, technology, people, news, and ideas which, in turn, led to a high degree of convergence among markets, merchants, and bankers. (winseck and pike, 2007, 1–2)
It is clear that the notion of imperialism has gained a new perspective in the midst of the rapid growth of new technologies. While the importance of the global flow in capital and culture has arguably changed, several recent theoreticians have emphasized the importance of the dominance of icts.
Dan Schiller (1999) has specifically developed a theory of digital capitalism that emphasizes the changing role of networks for capital accumulation:the networks that comprise cyberspace were originally created at thebehest of government agencies, military contractors, and allied educationalinstitutions. However, over the past generation or so, a growingnumber of these networks began to serve primarily corporate users.Under the sway of an expansionary market logic, the Internet began a political-economic transition toward digital capitalism.
Castells (2001) also cautions against the socially and functionally selective diffusion of technology. He identifies one of the major sources of social inequality as the differential timing in access to the power of technology for people, and thus acknowledges, in contrast to the laudatory rhetoric about the globalization of technological systems, that its outcome is instead large areas of the world, and considerable segments of population, switched off from the new technological system. Boyd-Barrett emphasizes (2006, 21–22), “the emergence of microprocessor-based computer network technology and the u.s. dominance of ict are crucial for u.s. economy and imperialism.”
Meanwhile, Fuchs (2010a, 56) points out, “media and information play a pivotal role in the new concept of imperialism, which the u.s. has dominated based on its advanced digital technologies, although they are subsumed under finance capital in the 21st century.”
However, with the swift transfer of power to platforms, the situation has recently changed, although of course, not without periodic setbacks for traditional ict companies. Previously powerful ict corporations have increasingly been subordinated to platforms due to the latters’ ascendant role and power in digital media economies. For example, in August 2011, Google acquired Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion in order to give the platform giant a presence in smartphone hardware while also bringing it thousands of new patents (Efrati and Ante, 2011).
Almost at the same time, Hewlett-Packard Co., the world’s largest personal-computer maker, is simultaneously exploring a spinoff of its pc business as profits slide, but buying u.k. software firm Autonomy Corp., for about $10.25 billion (Worthen et al., 2011). It is presumptuous to say that the hardware era is gone; however, these two recent events and the increasing role of u.s.-based platforms in capital accumulation and culture (Facebook and Google) are arguably clear examples of the rise of platform imperialism.
5 Great American Powers and Platform Imperialism
5.1 What is Platform Imperialism?
The term platform has recently emerged as a concept to describe the online services of content intermediaries, both in their self-characterizations and in the broader public discourse of users, the press and commentaries (Gillespie 2010, 349). While people associate platforms with their computational meaning (Bodle 2010), which is an infrastructure that supports the design and use of particular applications or operating systems, the concept of platform can be explained in three different, but interconnected ways.
First, a platform is not only hardware architecture, but also a software framework that allows other programs to run (Tech Coders.com 2012). Second, platforms afford an opportunity to communicate, interact, or sell. This means that platforms allow code to be written or run, and a key is that they also enhance the ability of people to use a range of Web 2.0 technologies to express themselves online and participate in the commons of cyberspace (Gillespie 2010).
Platforms also can be analyzed from the corporate sphere because their operation is substantially defined by market forces and the process of commodity exchange (van Dijck 2012, 162). Finally, it is crucial to understand the nature of platforms because a platform’s value is embedded in design. As several theoreticians argue (Ess 2009; Feenberg 1991), technology is not value neutral but reflects the cultural bias, values and communicative preferences of designers.
Likewise, platforms often reinforce the values and preferences of designers, either explicitly or implicitly, while sometimes clashing with the values and preferences of their intended users (Ess 2009, 16). As Bodle (2010, 15) points out, the technological design of online spaces, tools, and operating systems constitutes a contested terrain where the imposition of designers’ values and preferences are at odds with the values and preferences of theintended user base.
All three of these areas are relevant to why platforms have emerged in reference to online and mobile content-hosting intermediaries. Drawing these meanings together allows us to see that platforms emerge not simply as indicating a functional computational shape, but with cultural values embedded in them.
Since platforms are crucial for people’s everyday information flows and capitalism, not only on a national level, but also on a global level, it is important to measure whether platforms suggest a progressive and egalitarian
arrangement, promising to support those who stand upon them in the contemporary global society (Gillespie 2010). Arguably, global flows of culture and technology have been asymmetrical, as theories of cultural and media imperialism have long asserted, and thus the focal point here is whether asymmetrical relationships between a few developed and many developing countries exist in the case of platforms.
Accepting platforms as digital media intermediaries, the idea of platform imperialism refers to an asymmetrical relationship of interdependence between the West, primarily the u.s., and many developing powers – of course, including transnational corporations as Lenin andH. Schiller analyzed. Characterized in part by unequal technological exchangesand therefore capital flows, the current state of platform development impliesa technological domination of u.s.-based companies that have greatly influenced the majority of people and countries.
Unlike other fields, including cultureand hardware, in which a method for maintaining unequal power relationsamong countries is primarily the exportation of these goods and related services,in the case of platform imperialism, the methods are different because commercial values are embedded in platforms and in ways that are more significant for capital accumulation and the expansion of power.
5.2 Internet Platforms: The American Dominance in Platform Imperialism
American-based platforms, including search engines and social media, are dominant in the global Internet markets. According to Alexa.com (2012), over the three-month period between September and November of 2012, among the top 100 global sites on the Web based on page views and visits, 48 websites were owned by u.s. corporations and 52 websites were non-u.s. Internet firms. Other than the u.s., 16 countries had their own websites on the list, and amongthem, China had the largest number of websites (18), followed by Japan (6), Russia (5), India (4) and the uk (4). A few non-Western countries, includingIndonesia, Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico also had one website each.
This dataseemingly explains that the u.s. is not a dominant force in the Internet market.However, when we consider the origins of the websites, the story is not thesame, because the websites that belong to these non-Western countries are of u.s.-origin, including Google, Yahoo, and Amazon. Other than a handful ofcountries, including China and Russia, developing countries have no websitesthat they originally created and operated themselves.
Based on the origin ofthe websites, u.s. companies comprised 72% of the list, which means that only one country controls three-fourths of the top Internet market. More importantly, 88 of these websites, such as Google, Yahoo, and YouTube, accumulate capital primarily by (targeted) advertising, and they prove that u.s.-origin platforms are symbols of global capitalism. In fact, among the top 100 list, only two websites (Wikipedia and bbc Online) are operated with a non-profit model. Ten websites make revenues through other business models, including pay-per-view and subscription, although a few websites (Am
Amazon and eBay) developed several business models, such as product and service sales and marketing.
Among these, Craigslist.com makes money through a handful of revenue streams. The website charges some fees to post a job listing in several u.s. cities, while charging fees to list an apartment rental in New York, usa. The revenues cover only the operating expenses; the company has not made a profit since its inception (Patrick 2012).
Meanwhile, WordPress.com is run by Automatic which currently makes money from the aforementioned upgrades, blog services, Akismet anti-spam technology, and hosting partnerships. What is most significant about the contemporary Internet is the swift growth of capitalist platforms, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. As Baran and Sweezy (1968) argued, in a capitalism dominated by large corporations operating in oligopolistic markets, advertising especially becomes a necessary, competitive weapon.
No matter whether Western or non-Western, these websites and platforms are major engines appropriating advertising for global capitalism.
Specifically speaking, while there are many u.s-based platforms that have increased their global influence, three major American-based platforms – Google, Facebook, and YouTube (also owned by Google) – made up the top three websites in November 2012 (Alexa.com, 2012). Except for two Chinese-based platforms (Baidu.com and qq.com), the other eight platforms in the top 10 were all American-based platforms.
Among these, Google is the world’s most accessed web platform: 46% of worldwide Internet users accessed Google in a three-month period in 2010 (Fuchs 2011b). Among search engines only, Google’s dominant position is furthermore phenomenal. As of November 2012, Google accounted for as much as 88.8% of the global search engine market, followed by Bing (4.2%), Baidu (3.5%), Yahoo (2.4), and others (1.1%) (Kamasnack 2012).
Google even launched google.cn in 2006, agreeing to some censorship of search results to enter the country, to meet the requirements of the Chinese government.
In China, Google’s market share stood at 16.7% as of December 2011, down from 27% in June 2010, while local web search engine Baidu’s market share increased from 70% as of June 2010 to 78.3% in December 2011 (La Monica 2012; Lee 2010; Lau 2010). Due to the fact that Baidu is limited mainly to Chinese language users, though, it can’t surmount Google’s global market share.
snss have also gained tremendous attention as popular online spaces for both youth and adults in recent years. American-based snss have rapidly penetrated the world and enjoyed an ample amount of capital gains. Several localbased snss, such as Mixi (Japan), Cyworld (Korea), and qq (China), as well as vk (Originally VKontakte) – a European social network site that Russianspeaking users use around the world (vk was established in 2006 by Pavel Durov, a Russian entrepreneur, who is still the co-owner alongside the Mail.ru Group–the Russian Internet giant that owns a 39.9% stake in Vkontakte; East–west Digital News, 2012) – are competing with American-based snss.
For example, Russian Cyberspace, including the Commonwealth of Independent States (cis), such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, known as runet, is a selfcontained linguistic and cultural environment with well-developed and highly popular search engines, web portals, social network sites, and free e-mail services.
Within runet, Russian search engines dominate with Yandex (often called the Google of Russia), beating out Google (Deibert et al. 2010, 17–19). The market share of Yandex was 60.3% in November 2012, while Google’s share was 26.6% in November 2012, according to LiveInternet (2012).
However, outside these few countries, the majority of countries in the world have increased their usage of Facebook and Twitter. These Western-based platforms have managed to overtake some local incumbent snss and search engines in the past few years (Jin forthcoming). The u.s. has continued an asymmetrical relationship of interdependence between a few developed countries and the majority of developing countries up to the present time.
Among these, Facebook, which was founded in the usa in 2004, is organized around linked personal platforms based on geographic, educational, or corporate networks. Given that the general concept of platform means any base of technologies on which other technologies or processes are built, Facebook is a platform that plays an advanced role in aggregating several services. When Netscape became a platform in the 1990s, their flagship product was the web browser, and their strategy was to use their dominance in the browser market to establish a market for high-priced products (O’Reilly 2005).
However, for Facebook, ‘usage’ is more important than other functions. “People as consumers and producers flock to Facebook to socialize with their friends and acquaintances, to share information with interested others, and to see and be seen” (boyd 2011, 39). The site can be understood as an online communication platform that combines features of e-mail, instant messaging, photo-sharing, and blogging programs, as well as a way to monitor one’s friends’ online social activity.
Since May 2007, members have been able to download and interact with Facebook applications, programs and accessories developed by outside companies that now have access to Facebook’s operating platform and large
networked membership (Cohen 2008).
Facebook is indeed maintaining its rate of growth and generating thousands of new user registrations every day. The number of total users has grown from 585 million in December 2010 to 1.3 billion in March 2014., These numbers are significant because they have contributed to the high valuation assigned to the company. Facebook’s value reached $50 billion in January 2011 (McGirt 2007; Rushe 2011). Right after its public offering on May 18, 2012, the capital value of Facebook was as much as $104 billion (ap 2012).
Interestingly enough, before its public offering, Zuckerberg emphasized that “Facebook’s social mission was to make the world more open and connected,” and he stated that “the primary goal was not making money” (Channel 4 News 2012). This might be true and it will not always be easy to separate economic and social values as motives, but the public offering of Facebook clearly proves that the development of new technology cannot be understood without its value embedded in design for commodity exchange, as van Dijck (2012) points out.
At the very least, the technological design of online spaces and operating systems constitute a contested terrain where the imposition of designers’ values and preferences are at odds with the values and preferences of the intended user base (Bodle 2010).
Meanwhile, Facebook has rapidly expanded its dominance in many countries. According to the World Map of Social Networks, showing the most popular snss by country, which is based on Alexa and Google Trends for Websites traffic data (2012), Facebook is the market leader in 126 countries out of 137 (92%) as of June 2012, up from 87% in June 2010, and up from 78% in December 2009 (Vincos Blog 2012).
Although several local-based snss are still market leaders in Asian countries, such as China, Japan, and Korea as well as Russia, which is very significant because these are some of the largest it markets, Facebook has managed to overtake local incumbent snss, and has rapidly penetrated the majority of countries in the world. Facebook has positioned itself as the leader of interactive, participant-based online media, or Web 2.0, the descriptor for websites based on user-generated content that create value from the sharing of information between participants (Hoegg et al. 2006, 1; O’Reilly 2005).
The dominant positions of several social media, including Facebook and Google have been considered as clear examples of platform imperialism. While these sites can offer participants entertainment and a way to socialize, the social relations present on a site like Facebook can obscure economic relations that reflect larger patterns of capitalist development in the digital age.
The connection of snss to capitalism is especially significant. sns users provide their daily activities as free labour to network owners, and thereafter, to advertisers, and their activities are primarily being watched and counted and eventually appropriated by large corporations and advertising agencies (Jin forthcoming).
As the number of sns users has soared, advertisers, including corporations and advertising agencies, have focused more on snss as alternative advertising media. According to Facebook’s S-1 filing with the u.s. Securities and Exchange Commission (sec), Facebook’s ad revenue in 2013 was $6.98 billion, up from $1.9 billion in 2010. Approximately 56% of Facebook’s 2011 ad revenue of $3.1 billion came from the u.s. alone, according to the company’s regulatory filings (Facebook 2014).
However, the proportion of the u.s. significantly decreased from 70.5% in 2010 to 56% in 2011 (eMarketer 2010), meaning Facebook has rapidly increased its profits from foreign countries.
As Grewal (2008, 4) emphasizes, “the prominent elements of globalization can be understood as the rise of network power.” The notion of network power consists of the joining of two ideas: first, that coordinating standards are more valuable when greater numbers of people use them, and second, that this dynamic as a form of power backed by Facebook, which is one of the largest tncs, can lead to the progressive elimination of the alternatives, as Lenin (1917) and H. Schiller (1991) emphasized.
Facebook as the market leader in the sns world has eliminated competitors as the number of users exponentially soars. “In the digital era, one of the main sources of social inequality is theaccess to technology” (Castells 1996, 32–33). Even when the issue is no longerthat of lack of material access to technology, a power distribution and hegemonicnegotiation of technologically mediated space is always at play (Gajjalaand Birzescu 2011).
The powers that can be marshaled through platforms arenot exclusively centered in the u.s. However, as Lenin argued, the conflicts forhegemony between great powers, in this case, u.s-based snss and local-basedsnss have been evident, and Facebook and Twitter have become dominant powers.
In other words, a few u.s.-based platforms dominate the global order, which has resulted in the concentration of capital in a few hands within majortncs and start-ups. This is far from a globalization model in which power isinfinitely dispersed. Capital and power are not the form of monopoly; however,a handful of u.s.-owned platforms have rapidly expanded their dominance inthe global market, which has caused the asymmetrical gap between a fewWestern countries and the majority of non-Western countries.
6 The Role of Nation-States in the Construction of Platform Imperialism
While tncs have developed and advanced new technologies, it is important to understand that nation-states, both the u.s. government and other governments, including China, support the growth of their own platforms, and these new political agendas certainly construct the new form of media imperialism in tandem with platforms.
The u.s. government, based on its state power, has greatly supported American-based platform owners in global politics. The involvement of the u.s. government and the Chinese government in the wake of China’s attacks on Google services has become a recent case in this regard.
In the midst of the conflicts between the Chinese government and Google, the Chinese government has restricted Google discussion topics that the government finds objectionable, such as independence drives in the regions of Tibet and Xinjiang and the banned religious movement Falun Gong. For the tens of thousands of censors employed by the Chinese government, blocking
access to restricted information both at home and abroad is an ongoing struggle.
Search engines are prevented from linking to sensitive content (Ramzy 2010). As discussed, Google launched google.cn in 2006, agreeing to some censorship of search results, as required by the Chinese government; however, due to the restrictions and some cyberattacks allegedly targeting Gmail, Google warned that it might end its operations in China (bbc News 2010).
Interestingly enough, the u.s. as a nation-state has strongly supported Google. u.s. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton especially gave two major speeches in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Clinton gave the first significant speech on Internet freedom around the world, making it clear exactly where the u.s. stood in January 2010; on their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the u.s. does.
We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. This challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. (u.s. Secretary of State 2010).
In her speech, Clinton cited China as among a number of countries where there has been “a spike in threats to the free flow of information” over the past year, and she also named Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam (u.s. Secretary of State 2010). Of course, China rejected a call by Clinton for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet in the communist country, denouncing her criticism as false and damaging to bilateral ties. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement posted on the ministry’s Web site:
“regarding comments that contradict facts and harm China-u.s. relations, we are firmly opposed. We urged the u.s. side to respect facts and stop using the so-called freedom of the Internet to make unjustified accusations against China. The Chinese Internet is open and China is the country witnessing the most active development of the Internet.” mufson 2010, a14
Ma added that China regulated the Web according to law and in keeping with its national conditions and cultural traditions.
It is evident that the Chinese government understands the vast size of the Chinese Internet market, and it has taken measures to cultivate the growth of local information technology, including Google’s competitor, Baidu.cn. The Chinese government has maneuvered to protect its own technology-driven corporations due to their significance for the national economy. China’s English-language Global Times therefore characterizes Clinton’s speech as a disguised attempt to impose [u.s.] values on other cultures in the name of democracy. The newspaper then dragged out another snarling phrase to denounce Clinton’s overtures on freedom of speech: information imperialism (Global Times 2010).
The second round of debate between the u.s. and China occurred in February 2011. Hillary Clinton again warned repressive governments, such as China, Cuba and Syria, not to restrict Internet freedom, saying such efforts will ultimately fail. Calling the Internet the public space of the future, Clinton enumerated all the reasons that freedom of expression must be the overriding ethos of this worldwide landscape (Goodale 2011).
As expected, the Chinese government also warned the u.s. not to use the issues to meddle in China’s internal affairs. The government expressed that Internet freedom in China is guaranteed by law, and stated “we are opposed to any country using Internet freedom as a pretext for interference in Chinese affairs” (States News Service 2011).
As such, in the 21st century, the u.s. government has intensified its efforts to penetrate the global information market. As Panitch and Gindin (2003, 35–36) succinctly argue, neoliberal globalization is the acceleration of the drive to a seamless world of capital accumulation, and the mechanisms of neoliberalism may have been economic, but in essence it was a political response to the democratic gains that had been previously achieved by subordinate classes and which had become, in a new context and from capital’s perspective, barriers to accumulation…. Once the American state itself moved in this direction, it had a new status: capitalism evolved to a new
form of social rule that promised, and largely delivered, a) the revival of the productive base for American dominance; b) a universal model for restoring the conditions for profits in other developed countries; and c) the economic conditions for integrating global capitalism.
Direct government intervention and support by the State Department have developed and expanded u.s. platforms throughout the world. As the u.s. government has continuously supported Hollywood backed by the Motion Picture Association of America and major film producers (Wasko 2003), the u.s government has been actively involved in the discourse of the free flow of information, and of course, one of the primary backgrounds is Google. The company lobbied 13 government agencies in 2009, spending just under $6 million in the process, and Google chiefly focused on freedom of speech on the Internet in 2010, particularly because of its highly publicized battles with the Chinese government.
Google urged lawmakers to adopt policies that assure a neutral and open Internet at home and put pressure on foreign governments that censor the Web (Goldman 2010). The u.s. campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted Internet backed by Google and other platforms, including Microsoft has been a clear proof of the collaboration between the government and tncs, two major powers, in the global market.
Since the early 1990s, as H. Schiller (1999) criticized, several theoreticians have insisted that the market is the solution to all problems, that private enterprise is the preferred means to achieve solid economic results, and that government is the enemy. However, as the case of Google in China proves, as well as ip rights related global politics, the last several decades’ record is of government initiative, support, and promotion of information and communication policies.
The principle – vital to the worldwide export of American cultural product and American way of life – of the free flow of information has arguably become a universal virtue to both the information industries and the u.s. government (H. Schiller 1999), and this fundamental political agenda continues in the Obama government.
The u.s. government has become a primary actor in tandem with tncs, which also applies to platform imperialism. The u.s. is not the only country to actualize neoliberal policies. The Chinese government also capitalizes on neoliberal globalization, meaning the role of China in global capitalism has rapidly increased. One needs to be very careful, though, because “China is not capitalist despite the rise of a capitalist class and capitalist enterprises” (Arrighi 2007, 331).
“The capitalist character of marked-based development is not determined by the presence of capitalist institutions and dispositions but by the relation of state power to capital. Add as many capitalists as you like to a market economy, but unless the state has been subordinated to their class interest, the market economy remains non-capitalist. (arrighi 2007, 331–332)
The Chinese state in Arrighi’s view still retains a high degree of autonomy from the capitalist class and is therefore able to act in the national rather than in a class interest (Robinson 2010).
Since the late 1970s, the Chinese state has undergone a radical transformation in order to pursue substantive linkages with transnational capitalism. Neoliberal ideas have been influential in China as the post-Mao leadership embraced the market system as a means to develop the country (Zhao, 2008).
In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey (2005, 120) clearly points out that “the outcome in China has been the construction of a particular kind of market economy that increasingly incorporates neoliberal elements interdigitated with authoritarian centralized control.” As The Top 100 Sites on the Web show, Chinese platforms, including Baidu, qq, and Taobao, utilize the targeted advertising capital business model, which is not different from us Internet capitalism.
Of course, this does not imply that China has entirely adopted neoliberal capitalist reform. Although China’s transition from a planned economy to a socialist market economy is substantial, China also poses an alternative to the Washington Consensus, which emphasizes the continuing role of the government in the market. As Zhao (2008, 37) aptly puts it, the Chinese government has developed both “neoliberalism as exception” and “exceptions to neoliberalism” for the national economy and culture. The Chinese government has developed a market-friendly economy; however, at the same time, it continues to play a primary role in the market.
In sum, when society looks to regulate an emerging form of information distribution, be it the telegraph or radio or the Internet, it is in many ways making decisions about what that technology is, what it is for, what sociotechnical arrangements are best suited to help it achieve that and what it must not be allowed to become (Benkler 2003).
This is not just in the words of the policymakers themselves. Interested third parties, particularly the companies that provide these services, are deeply invested in fostering a regulatory paradigm that gives them the most leeway to conduct their businesses, imposes the fewest restrictions on their service provision, protects them from liability for things they hope not to be liable for and paints them in the best light in terms of the public interest (Gillespie 2010, 356).
In fact, Google, in its newly adopted role of aggressive lobbyist, has become increasingly vocal on a number of policy issues, including net neutrality, spectrum allocation, freedom of speech and political transparency (Phillips 2006, Gillespie 2010). Platform imperialism has been developed and influenced by sometimes cooperative and at other times conflicting relationships among the government, domestic capital and tncs. tncs are valuable players to platform technologies; the nation-states are also primary actors in international negotiations.
As Marx stated (1867), the capitalist expansion of tncs inevitably takes the political form of imperialism, and it is further evident in the case with the development of platform imperialism.
This chapter has analyzed the evolutionary development of various theories of imperialism and examined whether we might be moving towards a situation of platform imperialism. It examined whether Lenin’s analysis continues to explain what is happening in the world during these early years of the 21st
century. Since the new concept of imperialism functions through digital technologies, first information and second platform technologies in the 21st century, which were not seen in Lenin’s imperialism, it is crucial to understand whether such technologies play a primary role in changing the notions of imperialism.
At a glance, the massive switch to the digital economy has provided a surplus for several emerging powers, including China, India, and Korea with which to challenge the longer-term u.s. dominance, unlike the old notion of imperialism developed by Lenin (Boyd-Barrett 2006, 24). These countries have presumably competed with Western countries, and they are supposed to build a new global order with their advanced digital technologies.
However, there are doubts as to whether non-Western ict corporations have reorganized the global flow and constructed a balance between the West and the East. The panacea of technology may reduce imperialism and domination to vestiges of the past; however, technology will always be the reality of human hierarchy and domination (Maurais 2003, Demont-Heinrich 2008), and digital technologies have buttressed u.s. hegemony.
In particular, when the debates reach platforms, non-Western countries have not, and likely cannot, construct a balanced global order, because Google (including its Android operating system), Facebook, Twitter and Apple’s iPhones (and iOS) are indices of the dominance of the u.s. in the digital economy.
These platforms have penetrated the global market and expanded their global dominance. Therefore, it is not unsafe to say that American imperialism has been continued with platforms. As in the time of Lenin between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, there has been a connection between platform and capitalist imperialism. Platforms have functioned as a new form of distributor and producer that the u.s. dominates. Arguably, therefore, we are still living in the imperialist era.
A critical interrogation of the global hegemony of platforms proves that the dominant position of the u.s. has intensified an increasingly unequal relationship between the West and the East. In the 21st century, the world has become further divided into a handful of Western states, in particular, the u.s., which have developed platforms, and a vast majority of non-Western states, which do not have advanced platforms. Therefore, it is certain that American imperialism has been renewed with platforms, like the old form of American imperialism supported by politics, economy, and military, as well as culture.
At the time of Lenin, there was certainly a connection between communication – cable and telegraph systems – globalization and capitalist imperialism (Winseck and Pike 2007, 1). In the 21st century, again, there is a distinct connection between platforms, globalization, and capitalist imperialism.
Unlike the old notion of imperialism, though, the contemporary concept of imperialism has supported huge flows of people, news, and symbols, which, in turn, leads to a high degree of convergence among markets, technologies, and major tncs in tandem with nation-states. Platforms can be situated within more general capitalist processes that follow familiar patterns of asymmetrical power relations between the West and the East, as well as between workers and owners, commodification, and the harnessing of user power.
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