Will the Internet Spread U.S. Cultural Imperialism?

A Report for Howard Besser's Class on

Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia and Networks

Stephen Morris - December 5, 1996

What is cultural imperialism?

The world-wide dominance and ubiquity of U.S. popular culture is viewed by many countries as cultural imperialism. Countries such as France and Canada believe that the books, films, and television programs that are created within their borders help define the very identity of their country. Those cultural products of today are being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of imports from the U.S.

The government of China is concerned with maintaining the current governmental structure, and the importation of Western culture brings with it ideas such as democracy, ideas the Chinese can do without. Singapore is struggling to preserve a national ideology and value system which the government believes is being threatened by unwanted outside influences.

Already, these countries are inundated with movies, books, and television programming from the U.S. As the popularity of the Internet grows, and as more more multimedia content is being distibuted via the Internet, countries are beginning to pass regulations and policies concerning Internet access and content available to their citizens.

The Threat of the Internet

It is estimated that 90% of the world-wide traffic on the Internet is in English. Combined with the fact that the Internet is based in the U.S., most Web sites are in the U.S. and are in English, most software used to navigate the Internet are in English, and search engines are mostly in English, have led some to denounce the Internet as the most recent and most sinister facet of American cultural imperialism to emerge.1

It is believed by many that the Internet will be a driving force for the Anglification of the world and that English, currently the unofficial language of world commerce, will become that of world culture. This has led, for example, to attempts by the European Parliament to legislate culture. The Parliament has asked for controls on the Internet including extending quotas and controls on content for multimedia services transmitted on the Internet.


In France, cultural identity is tied up with the French language. The nationıs cultural production defines its very identity - the ³Frenchness² that is France. A major objection to U.S. products is that they are in English. Inundated with U.S. popular culture, the French government fears that people will feel like tourists in their own country.2

There is a basic difference in perception between Americans and the French towards cultural production. Americans tend to view television programs, films, and books as commercial products created by the private sector. The French see culture as defining themselves as a nation, and accept the governmentıs role to restrict the importation of cultural goods. The French arguments to restrict the onslaught of American goods goes beyond mere marketplace competition; they truly believe their cultural identity is at stake. Cultural imperialism is a concept difficult for Americans to understand and accept, rather the U.S. defines the conflict as an economic one. The U.S. is not currently at risk of having its culture swamped by foreign films, books, and television programming, and most Americans are oblivious to the problem.

The French government is concerned that the Internet will be another tool for U.S. cultural imperialism. The French people are already wired for computers, having used Minitels for many years. The problem with the Minitel system is that it is text-based and relatively slow. The growing popularity of PCıs and the Internet has alarmed the government, which has renewed its call for quotas on foreign cultural content delivered via the World Wide Web.

It is possible that new technologies such as the Internet and satellite broadcasting will make culture quotas obsolete. There is little that can be done to control the content of information disseminated by way of mediums which do not respect geographical boundaries except to enforce a total ban on the receiving systems such as satellite dishes. Nations such as France or Canada worried about the threat posed by the Internet to dilute or eliminate cultural to focus on production and dissemination of their own cultural products online.3


The U.S. viewpoint is that the open access to information is preferable to censorship. For Singapore, the attitude is one of a small society struggling to preserve a national ideology and value system which is being threatened by unwanted outside influences.

Singapore wishes to maintain its low crime rate, its efficient and effective service, and the ability of its citizenry to work together towards common goals.4 Singapore has been a critic of American individualism and does not want to tolerate an American-exported ³anything goes² attitude among its populace.5

In order to protect the Singaporean way of life, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) has decided to regulate the Internet in Singapore through a Class Licence Scheme. 6

The SBA has stated that ³we will concentrate on content which may undermine the public morals, political stability and religious harmony of Singapore. Our aim is to encourage responsible use of the Internet while facilitating its healthy development in Singapore.²7

Some of the Internet content that the SBA is attempting to regulate is that, in the Singaporean governmentıs view, which:8

Some of these regulations fly in the face of what many Americans would consider rights or freedoms of the people to criticize and discuss governmental policies and societal issues. But it is exactly that imposition of our values that the Singaporean government is trying to forestall that has led to its regulation of the Internet.

The SBA is also asking Singaporeans to help ³in the identification of objectionable sites in order to keep cyberspace clean.²9 The idea of citizens monitoring a medium and reporting to the government seems a bit frightening to us in the U.S. Americans tend to like the monitoring done by the government and kept quiet and secret, out of the public view. The public is brought in to help the government catch the ³bad guys² with shows like Americaıs Most Wanted. Singapore is enlisting the populaceıs help in catching the ³bad sites.²

The Singaporean attempt to regulate the Internet may ultimately prove futile. In April of 1992, Singaporeıs National Computer Board released ³A Vision of an Intelligent Island: The IT2000 Report.² Singapore has embarked on a future that would have a world of digital technology available in the daily lives of its citizens. It may be too late to put the genie back into the bottle. Giving citizens access to an electronic world may change their society regardless of the governmentıs best efforts to prevent it. Satellite and wireless technology, direct broadcast services, and sophisticated ways around the governmentıs efforts to prevent certain Internet access may ultimately bring about cultural and societal change.

In the context of maintaining cultural diversity and different morals and lifestyles, it is hard to fault the Singapore government in its attempt to regulate the Internet. It is not always best that American culture, our attitudes and our capitalism, be exported to every region of the world.


There is a hypothesis that the proliferation of information will lead to liberal democracies. A case can be made that the student democracy movement in China in 1989 was helped by the dissemination of information. During the democracy demonstrations leading up to Tiananmen Square, Chinese students used fax machines to funnel information in and out of the Peopleıs Republic of China.10

The use of the Internet can be viewed as a tool in ousting Communist rule, utilizing tools of citizen empowerment such as mailing lists, newsgroups, and ftp archives.11

Chinese leaders perceive the Internet as threatening their governmental system of autocratic rule. It is believed that the Internet will allow the dissemination of ideas, democracy among them, which will lead to the downfall of the communist government.

In 1995, China began a program to increase content control over the Internet. First, it forced the U.S. to accept Chinese political censorship practices in return for commercial access to the countryıs vast music market. Second, its Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications directed all Internet providers to restrict access to ³undesirable² political discussions.12 As a result, the China Internet Corporation, a subsidiary of the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, declared that it would eliminate newsgroups, ftp sites, and the like that are ³not related to business.²

On February 4, 1996, the Chinese government announced that it intended to increase control over the Internet. Computer networks would be forced to use approved links as well as prohibited from moving any information deemed a hindrance to public order. The rules are meant to strengthen the hold of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, who will manage all networks over the Internet by forcing all networks to ³liquidate and reregister.²13

Xinhua, the official news agency, stated that ³Neither organizations nor individuals are allowed to engage in activities at the expense of state security and secrets...They are also forbidden from producing, retrieving, duplicating and spreading information that may hinder public order, and obscene and pornographic material.²14

The leadership of the Peopleıs Republic of China perceived the Internet as a way to spread democratic ideals. Recent government action to control the local networks, as well as the only gateway to the Internet, has resulted in a program of censorship of all sites it may deem dangerous to the status quo of communist rule.

Aaron Y. T. Cheung, executive director of Hong Kong Internet & Gateway Services Ltd., believes that change in China will come from the bottom up, not from the dissemination of information via the Internet. Cheung believes increasing capitalism will create a more productive economy and a middle class, which will in turn lead to political change. He does not believe that political change will come from the masses who will not have Internet access.15


It may not be necessary to regulate culture on the Internet. There may be factors specific to the Internet which may make it unnecessary to regulate cultural products accessible through it. There are at least three structural differences of the Internet (as it is now configured) from traditional forms of mass communication.

1) The Internet has no central location of power. Unlike broadcast media where information and cultural products are produced, selected or disseminated from one source possessing control, the Internet is decentralised. Many Web sites are being produced outside the U.S.

2) Instead of the means of production residing in a few powerful companies, everyone on the Internet can become a communicator of ideas. Everyone can become a publisher.

3) The receiver is not a passive listener; people must actively seek information or entertainment.

Linguistic uniformity, and with it cultural uniformity, is not inevitable. The Internet may help sustain multiculturalism. There is nothing to prevent the French, the Canadians, or the Singaporeans from creating their own Web sites, chat rooms, online services, and bulletin boards. Multimedia and digital technology, whether delivered over the Internet or otherwise, is here to stay. What type of impact that technology has on societies and cultures is open to debate, but it is doubtful that nations such as Singapore and China can stem the tide for long. The governments of France and Canada are leading the way to subsidize the production and dissemination of cultural products within their countries. Ultimately, it will be the consumers who will decide on what cultural content they want.

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1 Dennis Romero, The Net's a Small (English) World After All, L.A. Times, February 23, 1996

2 Michelle Belluzi, Cultural Protection as a Rationale for Legislation: The French Language Law of 1994 and the European Trend Toward Integration in the Face of Increasing U.S. Influence

3Final Report of the Information Highway Advisory Council (Canada), May 1996

4 George Yeo, Edith Cresson, Douglas Rushkoff, Kevin Kelley, Nicholas Negroponte, ³The Soul of Cyberspace,² New Perspectives Quarterly, Fall 1995

5 ³Asia and the Internet: Not Too Modern, Please,² The Economist, March 16, 1996

6 http://www.gov.sg/sba/netreg/annexa.htm

7 Statement by the Singapore Broadcast Authority, March 6, 1996.

8 Singapore Broadcasting Authority Internet Content Guidelines, Annex C

9 Singapore Broadcasting Authority, News Release, July 11, 1996

10 Andrew Leonard, Asia.net, Wired 3.07 (1995)

11 Andrew Leonard, Asia.net, Wired 3.07 (1995)

12 Strictly Business, Wired 3.09 (1995)

13 Tony Walker, Beijing Tightens Rules on Access to Internet, Financial Times, Feb. 5, 1996

14 Tony Walker, Beijing Tightens Rules on Access to Internet, Financial Times, Feb. 5, 1996

15 Neal Stephenson, In the Kingdom of Mao Bell, Wired 2.02 (1994)

Other references:

Mark Hays, A Storm Sweeping Down From Canada? Multimedia Policy Issues From the Great White North, Fasken Campbell Godfrey

The Europeans, Are the Online Services Yet Another Medium for Cultural Imperialism?, Web Review, 4/19/96

David Bennahum, Wired Nation, MEME 1.05, 1995

Robert W. McChesney, University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Internet and U.S. Communication Policy-Making in Historical and Critical Perspective, JCMC, Vol 1. Issue 4

Adolphie O. Amadi, African Libraries, Western Traditions and Colonial Brainwashing, Scarecrow Press, 1981