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Considering the advent of U.S. empire-making on the web
// by Zachary McCune
s the United States an Imperial Power? The question has been asked, and answered, from the position of military actions, political theory, history, economics, discourse analysis, law studies and cultural criticism. These approaches, spanning the scholastic work of J.A. Hobson, Edward Said, and Antonio Negri among others, continually assert that imperial power does what it has always done: make empires. And while these studies and theories still resonate today, they are in of re-consideration for the network spaces of the digital age. For if America is an imperial power today, then that empire must extend into and be maintained through what has been called cyberspace, the global information network, the world wide web, or most commonly, the internet. In short, if America is an imperial power, it must be engaged in a form of network imperialism to keep its military might, economic prowess, and foreign policy agendas working throughout the emergent spaces of new media networks. With the development of “Cyber Command”, the U.S. has openly acknowledged its weaponization of network power. Through staunch intellectual property campaigns designed at combating “piracy” throughout the web, the U.S. government has extended the reach of its law far beyond the physical territories of its jurisdiction. And even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls for the world to defend the new virtues of “internet freedom,” her comments actually define a new American doctrine that is being developed to serve U.S. interests and quietly develop a 21st century network empire.
theories of imperialism
Several helpful theoretical frameworks exist for conceptualizing of imperialism, and connecting its characteristics to contemporary U.S. actions and policies online. Working in 1902, J.A. Hobson works between the terms ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism,’ considering the former to be the product and domain of the latter. Hobson is quick to center the history of the idea writing “The root idea of empire in the ancient and medieval world was that of a federation of states under a hegemony, covering in general terms the entire known recognized world, such as was held by Rome under the so-called Pax Romana” (Hobson 8). For
Hobson, and for many subsequent assessments of imperialism, the ancient Roman roots of the idea are completely foundational, and in a way, redeeming, as they positioned any modern attempts at imperialism as an imagined recovery of this golden Western epoch. To this effect, Hobson writes of the “ancient” and “medieval” idea not as a situation of conflict, violence, and oppression, but instead points to the Pax Romana, as the signature, and thus redeeming quality, of empire. Later he writes, “Political philosophers in many ages…” in whom he includes Dante, Kant, and Machiavelli, “have speculated on an empire as the only feasible security for peace” (Hobson 9). Despite damning aspects of imperialism, Hobson allows it to be redeemed as a form of necessary security. Perhaps more empirically, Hobson notes that imperialism was always intrinsically an international venture. In the first quote above, Hobson outlines the subordination of states to “hegemony,” or leadership/dominance, as an indispensable characteristic of classical empire. But maybe with an eye on contemporaneous British empire, Hobson acknowledges that the internationalism of empires was “not always based on a conception of equality of nations” (Hobson 9). The fact that Hobson even uses “not always” leaves the door open for empire to be founded on the “equality of nations” not matter how unlikely that equality may be. In general, Hobson’s ideas of empire draw at once from historical analysis while also moving towards an empirical, evidential analysis best exemplified by his “Measure of Imperialism” chapter in which he attempts to “give definiteness to term imperialism” by looking over statistical tables of property, population, and possessions with regard to European countries of the time (Hobson 15). This approach suggests that imperialism can be discerned not only in history, but also within contemporary reality. By examining and ultimately connecting disparities (what David Harvey will call ‘asymmetries’) between nations, Hobson suggests that some nations (the imperial powers) hold more assets and thus power than others, allowing them to control the actions of a secondary set of nations. Connecting these observances with his historical model of empire (hegemony over a federation of states) Hobson concludes that imperialism is alive and active at the dawn of the 20th century.
Where Hobson sees imperialism largely in economic terms, Edward Said would come to characterize it additionally as a cultural project. In Culture & Imperialism, he argues “’Imperialism’ means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory” in which “the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire ... and all kinds of preparations are made for it within culture” (Said 8, 10). Being a scholar of literature, Said sees this best in “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them” (Said xiii). To make his theory tangible, Said looks at cases like the emergence of Irish nationalism and the literature of Yeats, connecting the “nationalist struggle” against British imperialism to the poet’s imagined “Irish past, with its Cuchulains and its great houses” giving the Irish an identity disjointed from that within British empire (Said 17). At the same time, Said emphasizes the necessity that imperial powers have an “imperial” culture in which “the idea of having an empire” is developed and supported. For the British Empire, this may be observed in the comedies of Gilbert & Sullivan, which at once poke fun at the empire while openly affirming its perceived benevolence. While Said does not follow ‘cultural imperialism’ to the empirical import/export ratios of objects like Hollywood films today, his theory emphasizes the indispensability of culture and cultural objects in the imperial project. Said asks the critical observer of imperialism to find where the culture of the process can be located and cited, an injunction that this paper will attempt to follow. For Harold Innis, the Canadian historian, empire could be traced out and understood through communication technology. In Empire and Communication, he explains “it has seemed to me that the subject of communication offers possibilities in that it occupies a crucial position in the organization and administration of government and in turn of empires” (Innis 5). By “using the concept of empire as an indication of efficiency of communication” Innis makes communication what Hobson called a “measure of imperialism,”
but also inverts the expected order (Innis 1950: 9). Instead of assuming the existence of empire and then examining communication systems, Innis suggests that an empire would be a high “indication of efficiency of communication” and then examines historical periods of communication in search of the empires they may represent. This view of communication as constructing rather than resulting from empire is an incredibly helpful way to approach global information networks today. For assuming that they are results of empires (as the BBC World Service is the ‘result’ of British Empire) ignores the role the technologies play in constructing empires, that may be different than economic and political mappings of the same subject. Writing almost a hundred years after Hobson, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri challenge the idea that imperialism and empire are directly related terms. In Empire, the authors attempt to create a form of post-imperialism study that buries “imperialism” will continuing a similar analysis of power and hegemony under the re-defined concept of “empire.” 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. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command (Negri & Hardt xii - xiii).
While their theoretical semantics are sensational and vaguely impractical (do we no longer use the term ‘imperialism’ then?), this theory does present a working contemporary idea of empire for a time in which in the literal use of empire cannot be pointed to. This allows America to be classified as an empire of the theoretical kind, despite governmental resistance such formal categorization and avoidance of the language of imperialism in its actions.
Hardt and Negri’s re-definition of empire is also crucial in that it centers “networks” as the operational system of contemporary imperialism. Empire can only be conceived as a universal republic, a network of powers and counterpowers structured in a boundless and inclusive architecture. This imperial expansion has nothing to do with imperialism, nor with those state organisms designed for conquest, pillage, and genocide, colonization, and slavery (Hardt & Negri 166-167).
Though the two rarely directly refer to the internet, information technology, or cyberspace in their analysis, there can be no mistaking its clear presence in this theoretical overture. Proponents of internet technology, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as will be shown, routinely characterize it as a “universal republic,” a utopian flat political space where individuals with access are afforded equal voice and opportunity to do what they will. The notion of “boundless and inclusive architecture” can also be read as a reference to internet technology and protocols which have been defined by their openness and inclusiveness (reliant on open protocols, free exchange between machines, and open source software). The internet is often celebrated for the sensation of being boundless and inexhaustible, while also being inclusive in that access to sites from other nations is technically no different than accessing sites about local businesses. The only issue that must be taken with Hardt & Negri’s positioning of the internet-as-empire is their second sentence. For surely “state organisms designed for conquest…” are very much a part of the boundless and inclusive architecture of the internet. These are the agencies of cyber warfare and intellectual property defense, who are quietly re-defining the web. Though their visibility remains low enough for them easily overlooked, it is naïve of Hardt and Negri to imagine the construction of empire without the forces of imperialism being literally coded into its technological apparatuses.
David Harvey’s New Imperialism makes it clear that the United States is and must be considered as an imperial power. But the nature of that power, as his title suggests, are new elements and styles that differentiate it from older, more Hobsonian conceptions of empire. Harvey terms American style empire “capitalist imperialism” – a “contradictory fusion” of state/empire politics with “the molecular processes of capital accumulation in space and time” (Harvey 26). “Imperialistic practices, from the perspective of capitalistic logic, are typically about exploiting the uneven geographical conditions under which capital accumulation occurs and also taking advantage of what I call the ‘asymmetries’ that inevitably arise out of spatial exchange relations” (Harvey 31). Reading through Harvey, one detects a borrowing from the frameworks of development studies- assessing the unevenness of economic prosperity around the world most often expressed in the categories of first, second, and third world. In this, Harvey harkens back to Hobson’s “measures of imperialism” and does not seem to be cutting any new ground. But when we consider that the bulk of his analysis is actually about the U.S. military, which he calls the U.S.’s “strongest card” for creating and defending empire, his “new imperialism” does indeed take shape (Harvey 79). And when he casts America as the “chief defender of freedom (understood in terms of free markets) and the rights of private property” one can begin to apply this framework to network policies about American intellectual property online are aggressively defended using much the same logic (Harvey 51-52). With Harvey’s labeling, it is possible to connect certain statements within American policy as “new imperialist” despite the conscious avoidance of such a term.
American war Online
Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism bridges the gap between the theorization of imperialism, and the concrete study of its historical development in the U.S. Military. For Bacevich a culture of looking at the world and its problems as situations best solved by military means has “seduced” contemporary America (Bacevich 2). The consequences of this are not only the incomparable size and expenditure of today’s U.S. military, but also its global deployment, international actions, and intellectualization. For Bacevich, like scholar Martin van Creveld, a major component of American military development has been the formalization of its ‘arts and sciences’ into certifiable academic programs (van Creveld 2005). On the one hand, these programs have made the American military a ‘white collar’ profession like many others. Simultaneously, this transformation has also opened a path for the development of what has been called “defense intellectuals” and their ability to theorize future paths and techniques of war, shifting Pentagon spending towards their topics (Bacevich 151). Beginning in 1988, and reaching a critical mass in the late 1990’s, military think tanks like the RAND (Research ANd Development) Corporation began to look beyond the atomic bomb towards a new type of ‘information warfare.’ Military researchers like Andrew Marshall began pointing at the dawning of the “computer age” to signify the end of conventional warfare, and the substitution of “smart” and “nimble” military operations reliant on advanced technology over the large army deployments (Bacevich 167). The empire of the bomb was giving way to the empire of networks and data packets. This became clear in the Gulf War. Combining cold war ballistics with ‘surgical precision’ made possible by computers in the field, the Gulf War would be derided by Jean Baudrillard as inherently “unreal.” In fact, Baudrillard claimed, “the Gulf War did not take place.” Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed. ... But this is not a war, any more than 10,000 tonnes of bombs per day is sufficient to make it a war. Any more than the direct transmission by CNN of real time information is sufficient to authenticate a war (Baudrillard 61).
Baudrillard’s hyperbole explains that with “real time information” combat, the very meaning of war changes. So Baudrillard’s critique may be read best as identifying the overthrow of war (and thus imperialism) as such, privileging the development of war as a highly virtual phenomenon. Baudrillard’s denial of the Gulf War as war also fits neatly in the Hardt and Negri overthrow of imperialism in favor of empire. For in the blurred combat zone constructed between CNN and information networks and computers in which the Gulf War raged, the traditional space of combat is “deterritorialized” and “decentered,” casting it as Hardt and Negri’s contemporary ‘empire.’ But the Gulf War was still very early in the development of more visible and formal network imperialism. Only in 1997, with President Clinton’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, did the idea and danger of combat as a purely informational act (i.e. an act that takes place only within the digital space of computer codes and networks) begin to gather formal address (Cordesman 13). In this document the commission defined a taxonomy of cyber-attacks for the one of the first times, shaping a definition of cyber-war as repeated, related cyber-attacks. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Cyber-Attack on Specific Server/Database Cyber-Attack for purpose of gaining access to a network Cyber-Attack for the purpose of Espionage Cyber-Attack for the Purpose of Shutting Down Service Cyber-Attack for purpose of introducing harmful instructions (Cordesman 13)
From 1993, when the Gulf War took place, to this 1997 text, one reads a substantial shift from the conception of information technology augmenting combat operations, to the more worrying understanding of information technology as a site of potential combat. Cordesman reports that as hacking became a serious news around the country, and corpora-
tions like AT&T became highly-visibility victims, the U.S. Congress began fearing something of a “electronic Pearl Harbor” in which it would be caught horribly unprepared and punished (Cordesman 2). The phrase “electronic Pearl Harbor” immediately suggests that Congressmen as well as the U.S. military saw the internet as something of a national project/space that needed the same protection as the physical country. An “electronic Pearl Harbor” has never fully materialized, but the U.S. and the world have been frequent victims of cyber-attacks since the term was coined. Inside Cyber Warfare, published in 2009, outlines a history of cyber-attacks worldwide. It begins with digital vandalism and intentional overwhelming of websites (often called DDoS attacks) in Israel and Palestine in 2000. The U.S. itself was the victim of over 80,000 Chinese hackers in 2001, when a collision between an American and Chinese Jet in the South Pacific was taken as an affront on Chinese pride. The New York Times would dub this event “World Wide Web War I” (Carr 4). Eight years later, when a series of cyber-attacks targeted the websites of the White House and Congress on the 4th of July, it was America’s turn to feel offended. U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra urged the U.S. military to respond in kind to the attack so as to send DPRK a “strong signal” (Carr 4). What would that signal have been? It’s somewhat unclear, but the implication is that the United States needs to demonstrate its power online, just as it does in the physical world, with its military. By asking the U.S. military rather than the State Department to respond, Hoekstra recalls the “new American Militarism” that Bacevich outlines, and with it, the imperial impulse to exercise power in an effort to intimidate other nations ‘beneath’ American hegemony. Under the term “cybersecurity,” the Obama presidency has hidden policies regarding cyberwar within the need the maintaining of America’s role as a world leader. Obama declared the month of October 2010 “National Cybersecurity Awareness Month,” signaling its immense importance to his agenda and view of the U.S today.
The growth and spread of technology has already transformed international security and the global marketplace. So as the United States – the Nation that created the internet and launched an information revolution – continues to be a pioneer in both technological innovation and cybersecurity, we will maintain our strength, resilience, and leadership in the 21st century (Obama 2010). The emphasis on “international security” and “the global marketplace” immediately recalls David Harvey’s claim that the U.S.’s “new imperialism” hides behind its role as “chief defender of freedom (understood in terms of free markets)”. The term “international security” also implies that America’s cyber-security is about protecting American interests in a global network not just domestically, which means protecting them across and throughout cyberspace no matter which nations the servers, computers, and computer users in question may reside. By maintaining the responsibility of cybersecurity at home and abroad, Obama promises the U.S. will maintain its “leadership in the 21st century” which surely is a statement of concern for defending its contemporary hegemony.
On June 23rd, 2009 the U.S. Secretary of Defense directed the U.S. Military to found Cyber Command or, in the parlance of the Department of Defense, USCYBERCOM. Its stated mission includes the ability to “conduct full-spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries” (Department of Defense 2010). Joining together various existing cyber commands in the Navy, Army and Marine Corps. including the provocatively titled 67th Network Warfare wing of the Air Force, USCYBERCOM is a significant imperial action on at least two levels (U.S. Air Force 2010). The first is that as a “joint command” positioned beneath U.S. Strategic Command, USCYBERCOM is just beneath entire U.S. military regional commands as AFRICOM, EUCOM (Europe), USPACOM (Pacific) or CENTCOM (Middle East). The regional commands, according to Niall Ferguson, reveal
an American imperialism rendered in the “Defense Department map of the world” in which American power is rendered literally global (Ferguson 17). For these commands make the U.S. at once appear ‘responsible’ for the entire world, and simultaneously partition the planet and its nations into grand administrative states that U.S. has developed for itself. By adding cyberspace formally to these command areas, the U.S. military annexes the internet as another territory it must control and survey as part of its larger military imperialism. The other significance of USCYBERCOM is nested in the last part of its mission statement. What, we may ask, does “freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries” mean as a political statement? The answer is that American military forces, as they done in Iraq and Afghanistan, are using a very subjective idea of “freedom.” One person’s freedom, we might say, is another’s restraint. From their mission statement, it is clear that the USCYBERCOM intends to privilege American ideas of freedom in cyberspace, which they openly admit will be the at the cost of “the same to our adversaries.” As a military organization, this statement is not altogether unreasonable or unexpected. For war and combat is predicated on maintaining advantages while denying the same to “adversaries.” But the crucial thing to realize about this utterance is how it will change the internet itself. For whether or not the U.S. military has developed and made strong use of network technology, the open militarization of it is happening only now. And because authors like Bacevich, Ferguson, and Harvey believe that the American military engages in an open imperial project, the formal development of USCYBERCOM represents the beginning of open imperialism with information networks. U.S. freedom is no longer a simple domestic expectation, but something that will be enforced within the global purview of the web. It is worth remembering here that the U.S. army cannot technically operate as a force within the U.S. proper, but must instead let the F.B.I. and other domestic organizations deal with policing intra-America cybersecurity. So what then is USCYBERCOM for save enforcing American policies outside of the nation, in the very pattern of imperial interests throughout history and as a culmination of U.S. militarization of networks over the past two decades?
the copy-fight for intellectual property
Examining the United State’s attempted global regulation of intellectual property also reveals a distinctly imperialism impulse in the nation’s economic and legal policy. Intellectual property, just to be clear, can be defined as “a work or invention that is the result of creativity” to which “one has rights and for which one may apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, etc” (Oxford American Dictionary 2010). These last items (“patent, copyright, trademark, etc.”) are legal constructs designed to protect the exclusive rights of a creator to make profit and license his/her works. Traditional infringement on intellectual property by illegally copying and distributing creative works (“piracy”) was punishable by the law, provided the infringement took place in the same nation or legal context as the protection. But today, copying and distributing intellectual property (IP) is dramatic aided by digital technology, and is now being shared across many legal contexts through the internet. The trouble for American companies and cultural producers is that this global flow of piracy is supposedly costing them money while allowing other nations to benefit from the creative works. This inverts the original dynamic of Said’s “cultural imperialism” in which certain cultural products and certain cultural ideals are forced on other nations to promote imperial ideology. For while American media companies want their messages and products to reach new markets (thus promoting American culture) they also want to get to paid for it. Economic imperialism wants to be an accomplice not a victim of cultural empire. At the request of President Obama, the U.S. government has directly intervened in this IP global crisis to guide and enforce stringent IP regulation through the web. In his 2011 “Establishment of the Intellectual Property Enforcement Advisory Committees,” Obama called for “the efforts of the Federal Government to encourage innovation through the effective and efficient enforcement of laws protecting copyright … and other forms of intellectual property, both in the United States and abroad” (Obama 2011). In point of fact the Federal
Government and its agencies can only legally enforce American IP protection in the United States. But by including “abroad,” Obama makes it clear that IP is a global issue for the U.S. government, and though he does not detail how American IP will be protected abroad, the implication is that it will be. One Federal organization called “The National Intellectual Property Coordination Center” has already been active in policing U.S. IP online, and may be evidence of what American network imperialism means in practice. In “Operation In Our Sites” the IPR cracked down on a number of websites online by “seizing website domain names, profits, and other property from IP thieves” whenever sites were found “offering the content or goods that violate U.S. copyrights and trademarks” (IPR 2011). One site, Atdhe.net was seized in February 2011 for offering links to video streams of sports from around the world, not just American pastimes. But if one takes the IPR on its word, the only thing that matters in acting on a website is that it offers content violating U.S. copyrights. Which basically means that the IPR will enforce U.S. copyright protection anywhere on the internet, regardless of the location of the servers of the website or the nation that has registered the site’s domain. This essentially elevates U.S. copyright to be more than an American IP protection, for if the American task forces are willing and have already enforced site seizures across the web, then the U.S. is clearly setting a precedent that it is willing to police all rather parts of the internet. Putting American economic interests over the sovereignty of nations to police their own servers, web users, and internet domains also develops the precedent of America acting unquestioned and unfettered online. This ‘global police mentality’ has frequently been cited by authors like Harvey and Said as a dominant characteristic of America’s new imperialism. It also recalls Hobson’s insight that just because nations are federated by the rule of hegemon, that does not mean there is “equality of nations.” Intellectual property piracy is also a major point of contention in the somewhat strained relationship between the U.S. and China. No doubt mirroring larger political tensions,
President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s recent meeting focused heavily on U.S. IP infringement in China, particularly as the pirates in question were often Chinese government agencies (Leonhardt 2011). While IPR might be able to crack down on independent pirates, wholesale national IP infringement represents an issue of a much higher order. For if the U.S. attempts to seize, shut-down, or attack (via USCYBERCOM?) such Chinese piracy, would it be construed as a dramatic imperial overstepping? Or even an act of war? The economic advantage of not paying for American software, films, etc. is as helpful for an emergent Chinese economy as it is hurtful for an American economy that needs to monetize the vast population of China. So this is where one current problem for American network imperialism still remains. What does one do when the other global hegemon decides to consciously undermine your IP protection?
conclusions: internet “freedom”
On February 15, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech on “Internet Freedom” that responded to recent unrest in the Middle East and emphasized the importance of ‘free and open access to the internet’ in those countries. Secretary Clinton argued that the United States government had thought long and hard about what policies it wanted to develop for the internet and concluded “we place ourselves on the side of openness” (Clinton 2011). Clinton then outlined the challenges of U.S. backed ‘internet freedom,’ questioned the motives and actions of other nations (including Egypt’s use of an internet kill switch), finally going over the things the U.S. was doing to foster and promote a ‘free’ internet. These things included grants to technological innovators, NGO’s, and making Government twitter feeds available in more languages. Intellectual property was discussed only once, right after a statement on child pornography, and cyber war, cyber command, and cyber attack were never mentioned.
Through this paper’s analysis, I have tried to make clear that the actions and statements of the U.S. Government towards the information networks of the internet can be included in the nation’s ‘new imperialism’ as what should be called “network imperialism.” This needs to be differentiated from nationalism, in which a projected national identity might guide such actions, and despotism, in which the policies might be highly arbitrary and abusive. To the contrary, the U.S. Government’s approach to the internet, network technology and war/IP within these domains has shown itself to be highly bureaucratic, consistent within its own logic, internationally-oriented, and distinctly pursued for advantage to the American people and their idea (almost like Said’s “idea of having an empire”) of how the world should work. It is part of the development of a world system, governed by a central ideology if not a concrete central location, subjugating the actions of internet users around the world to the policies and processes of the U.S. government. Hilary Clinton’s speech made clear that the American government perceives its role online as the Hobsonian and Harveyian hegemon whose rule allows for peace by taking responsibility for it. What else could she have meant when she concluded “Internet freedom is about defending the space … against those who we have always stood against, who wish to stifle and repress, to come forward with their version of reality and to accept none other” (Clinton 2011). These words echo USCYBERCOM’s mission to maintain US “freedom of action” online, and the purposes of Intellectual Property Task Forces to protect the ‘free markets online.’ Is Clinton, or USCYBERCOM, or the IPR really talking about “freedom” when they advocate for the openness their actions represent? In a way, yes. But they are freedoms within a cultural logic that has already accepted the necessity of certain un-freedoms, a conditional view of openness that expects security, and allows for certain activities while barring others. Freedoms, in short, that will become synonymous with American 21st century imperialism, pursued through the information networks that define them.
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essay prepared for master’s degree work in sociology at the university of cambridge
// by Zachary McCune
cc feb. 2011 - attribution
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?