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A world with three internets

The world is on its way to having separate Chinese, American and European networks

Cuatro repartidores con mascarillas junto a una boca de metro en Shangai, el mes pasado.
Cuatro repartidores con mascarillas junto a una boca de metro en Shangai, el mes pasado.YIFAN DING (Getty Images)
Moisés Naím

The global, decentralized, non-governmental, open and free internet that we all know is vanishing.

Today’s internet is neither global nor open. More than 40% of the world’s population now lives in countries where internet access is controlled by the authorities. The Chinese government, for example, restricts access to Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, CNN, Wikipedia, TikTok, Netflix and The New York Times, among others. There are, of course, Chinese versions of those digital products. In India, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, the government blocks websites and censors their content.

The internet is no longer decentralized either. While it is true that the internet has empowered many individuals and groups by giving them a better chance of being heard and influencing others – including their governments – it has also evolved in a way that gives other governments and the Tech Giants – Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook – ever-greater control over the internet. As a result, in many countries, the technology of political liberation has become a tool of repression.

Europe is the epicenter of an alternative internet approach that addresses the flaws of the American model and the abuses of the Chinese one

The internet is not free. Google searches, Facebook meetings, Twitter messages and WhatsApp chats may appear to be free, but they’re not. We pay for them by letting those who provide these services know virtually everything about us. That information enables them to dominate the lucrative market for global advertising.

But perhaps the most important trend transforming the internet is the way it is fragmenting into three distinct blocks. The world is on its way to having a Chinese, an American and a European internet.

The Chinese internet is closed, censored, protectionist and has high barriers to entry for companies from outside its digital borders. These cyberborders transcend the geographic borders of the country and include allies like North Korea and others. Its main competitive advantage is the almost one billion internet users in China. Its most influential protagonist is the central government and its national security, intelligence and citizen control services. Its great weakness is trying to use barriers from the past (protectionism and censorship) to contain the high-speed arrival of 21st-century digital innovations.

Then we have the United States version of the internet, which is anarchic, innovative, aggressively commercial and with strong monopolistic tendencies. The central players are the giant technology companies. With their huge war chests, large pools of technological talent and their unmatched prowess for innovation, they have a dynamism that their foreign counterparts simply can’t rival.

But the vulnerability of the American system is that a business model based on the bartering of free digital services in exchange for users’ personal data is not sustainable. Nor is the monopolistic control the tech companies enjoy. Or their indifference to the malicious use of their platforms by some actors that seek to sow social chaos, polarization and to influence elections. This is already beginning to change.

In many countries, the technology of political liberation has become a tool of repression

Europe, on the other hand, is the epicenter of an alternative internet approach that addresses the flaws of the American model and the abuses of the Chinese one. The European internet is more regulated, tries to protect users, confronts monopolies and defends democratic values. The European Commission has imposed billions of dollars in fines on Google, Apple, Microsoft and other tech companies. In 2018, the European Union adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), setting strict guidelines for the collection, storage and management of personal data. This regulation is the concrete manifestation of a legal approach that treats the protection of personal data as a fundamental human right. While the Chinese system is based on an autocratic regime’s need to control the country’s huge population and the US system on its business and technological dynamism, Europe is trying to influence the others by exporting its philosophy and system of rules based on democratic and humanistic values.

These three blocs are already fighting fiercely to gain full control over their respective areas of digital sovereignty, and the frictions between them are obvious. In addition to applying their antitrust and tax laws to American companies, the Europeans threaten to restrict Big Tech’s access to their market if they don’t conform to their rules. For its part, the United States is imposing sanctions and blocking companies like Huawei. China, naturally, is fighting back.

We will eventually have three internets, but the defining battle will be between the United States and China. And the confrontations of these digital superpowers will not be restricted to cyberspace and to the protection and expansion of their digital sovereignty. We already see this in the efforts of Washington and Beijing to ensure that their companies dominate 5G technology, the new generation of mobile telephony that will revolutionize communications and transform the internet. However, these are just skirmishes. The real clash will be over who will gain leadership in the field of Artificial Intelligence, an emerging technology that will remake the world.

That revolution is just beginning.

Follow me on Twitter @moisesnaim

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