CNN: It spans the globe like a super highway, it is called “Internet.”
David Bowie: I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.
Jeremy Paxman: It’s just a tool though isn’t it?
David Bowie: No, it’s not, no. It’s an alien life form.
ABC Science: It’s going to get woven into the daily fabric of our lives. It will just be like using a telephone, it’ll be like using your car on the roads, we take it for granted. If I wanted to talk to someone on the far side of the world it would be just as natural as me talking to you now.
The Internet. What was once a marvel is now something our modern world depends on for, well, everything. It allows us access. Access to crucial information, not-so-crucial information, and access to each other.
But not everyone’s access is created equally. In fact, it may no longer be accurate to think of THE internet as a single entity.
That’s because around the world, different governments have taken very different approaches to regulating the internet, shaping what their citizens access online and how their private data is tracked. And this has led to a splintering.
The world now has three primary “internets”: One led by the United States, one led by China, and one led by the European Union. And if things keep going as they are, we could be headed toward an even more divided digital world.
My name is Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today the world’s three internets and what they mean for our future.
Adam SEGAL: For most users, they still see one internet, right? You're going to go on the internet, you're going to search for whatever it's going to be, K-pop band, and you're going to see all the highlights and you're going to get all that stuff.
This is Adam Segal. He directs the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program here at the Council. He recently led an independent task force which further details U.S. national security innovations for defending an open and secure internet.
SEGAL: But what we're beginning to see is that governments are regulating and thinking about how the internet should be regulated very differently. And there are three major models. There's the way that the United States has done it, there is the way that China has done it from the beginning, which is much more restrictive. And then there's a European model that kind of blends the American focus on human rights and openness with more of a tendency towards government regulation.
Tarah WHEELER: The nature of what we're talking about when we say three internets is a regulatory environment, a climate, and some degree of authoritative control over how that information flows.
This is Tarah Wheeler. She is Senior Fellow for Global Cyber Policy here at the Council, and CEO of Red Queen Dynamics, a cybersecurity company.
WHEELER: A lot of the question around what constitutes an internet is who is allowed to listen to what you're doing and do something about it, and how much of your time do you have to put into enabling that for that third party? That's really what it kind of boils down to is what is this regime, what does this internet think it has the right and responsibility to do with you as an internet user? Whether that's by turning off the tap, literally severing a transatlantic cable, or simply because a government can control the internet service providers inside their territory and mandate that they shut those off. We see that there are three different real manifestations of what constitutes an internet in the world.
Gabrielle SIERRA: So that means that if there are three people, one in New York, one in Beijing, one in Berlin, and they all look up the same thing, let's say K-Pop, their experiences are going to be different based on where they are geographically?
SEGAL: Yes. Not with K-pop, K-pop probably they get all the same answers. But, the classic example with China is, you look up Tank Man. Tank Man is the picture of the individual standing in front of a line of tanks after the People's Liberation Army cracked down on the democracy movement in Tiananmen in 1989. If you Google that in the United States and Europe, you get that image, you get to see that picture. You Google that in China, you don't get anything, because the Chinese don't want young Chinese to know about Tiananmen happening, and so that image doesn't exist in China. It's controlled. If you Google Tiananmen in China, you just get a picture of beautiful Tiananmen and probably some PLA soldier raising the flag in the morning. Similarly, if you were to Google Mein Kampf the book in the United States, you would get the Wikipedia entry and you'd probably get a link to buy it on Amazon. But in a lot of European states, and in Germany in particular, you would get the Wikipedia link, but you would not get the link to buy Mein Kampf, right? Because you can't buy Nazi paraphernalia in Germany because they have restrictions on that, because of historical reasons.
And not only will your search results vary, the information collected on you as you search will also change.
This is a lot to digest, so let’s dig deeper into each of these internets, starting with the United States model.
PBS NewsHour: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, are among the most powerful monopolies in the history of humanity.
Wall Street Journal: They develop these products and services that have made such a deep impact into the lives of so many people on an everyday basis.
CNBC: Let’s, meanwhile, note that Apple just hit the three trillion dollar mark in total market cap.
Al Jazeera: After months of uncertainty and a long legal battle, the world’s wealthiest man has now taken charge of one of the most influential social media platforms.
Senator Orrin Hatch: How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?
Mark Zuckerburg: Senator, we run ads.
SEGAL: The United States internet is driven by two big principles. The First Amendment, so free speech, and then a very, very light regulatory hand from the government. So the internet sector was not taxed at the beginning, it was not regulated for the most part. And so it grew because of that, and it allowed for this free exchange of ideas. But the U.S. is unique in having a First Amendment. Other democracies don't have a First Amendment. Other democracies have what they consider legitimate reasons to control speech because of concerns about communal violence or because of their history. So from an innovative perspective, I think there's little doubt that the U.S. is still driving it. Although we are beginning to see the emergence of Chinese tech platforms, TikTok being the big one that no one really expected to see. But innovative perspective is still there. There has been over the last five years a real sense of the information the tech firms have about us, and how they use it in ways that we don't necessarily control, plus the kind of negative social impacts, right? So how that plays on teenagers and others who are constantly checking in and all these other things. From a political perspective, what we see is both the right and the left, the Democrats and the Republicans are very unhappy for different reasons. The Democrats and the Left have become unhappy both because of the rise of misogyny and transphobia and racism and the fact that a lot of these platforms have become places for abuse. Now from the Right's perspective, they are worried about tech’s control over free speech. And so a lot of the things that, when Twitter or Facebook takes something down, the Right tends to see it as stifling speech, free speech. So, the Right attacked Big Speech from that perspective. And then the Right and the Left both are unhappy with Big Tech because of anti monopoly, big trust. Do they dominate the markets too much?
Anu BRADFORD: So there's much good that has been accomplished. But I think we are increasingly aware of the downsides of the internet as well.
This is Anu Bradford. She is the Henry L. Moses Professor of Law and International Organization at Columbia Law School.
BRADFORD: The idea that it's not only a medium to force the beneficial societal debates that contribute towards more vibrant and participatory democracy, the internet is also rampant with disinformation that destabilizes our democracies with hate speech that compromises our dignity. Those are just some examples of how we've sort of gotten both things, we've gotten the good, but we've also gotten a lot of harmful effects, with all those connections. And also, I think nobody was able to predict just how powerful these leading internet platforms would become. So the kind of market power that these companies have the kind of economic and political and cultural and societal influence they exert, that is something that has really shaped societies in a way that can be very different, what sort of democratic societies would look like, if that power was rooted in real sort of democratic governance. Another concern is the privacy of individuals.
According to Pew, 68% of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people’s privacy online. Which kind of makes sense since the most important law when it comes to the U.S. internet, called Section 230, actually protects companies not users. It frees companies like Facebook or Twitter from liability for the content that its users post on their platforms. Some experts have referred to Section 230 as “the 26 words that created the Internet,” because it freed startups to move quickly without fear of lawsuits.
There are limited protections in the United States for certain types of highly sensitive information, like health data or social security numbers.
But there is no agency, or set of laws, that were created exclusively to protect the digital privacy of Americans. However, if you live in states like California or Connecticut, you may benefit from state-level data protections. But overall, it’s sort of a mess.
BRADFORD: So, our lives have become exposed to these companies that are in a position to extract our data and commercialize that data in ways that really deprives individuals of their privacy. And one could say to sort of compromise the autonomy and ability to make decisions, when that data can be used, then, to manipulate the choices that we make online.
Social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff coined a term for this: ‘surveillance capitalism.’ Basically, U.S. corporations claim private human experiences as free raw data. So, the same phone that you use to navigate to your favorite restaurant tracks your every move, often when you’re not even using your GPS. Every key word you search, every link you click, and every purchase you make goes into algorithms that shape your consumer profile.
This can feel icky, even spooky. And it's not the only problem that Americans face online. There’s also a steady stream of toxic, polarizing, and misleading content.
WHEELER: The internet does feel more toxic right now. We do talk about people, women, people who are non-binary, people of color getting bullied, experiencing this toxicity out there. But on a lot of levels, that comes as a result of the democratization of the internet. We let the a**holes onto the internet now too, and not just the nerds.
Ah, our first ever censorship bleep. And on the perfect episode. You gotta love that.
WHEELER: So a lot of the problem we're having right now is just that it's people using communication technologies. So it's going to be an interesting challenge to see how we handle this toxicity, this problem of letting just anybody in here without limiting speech, without limiting the communication protocols themselves.
SIERRA: Okay, fair. But do you think it's an easier lift to figure out how to regulate the place where this is all happening versus making all humans good humans?
WHEELER: I think the challenge that we’re having here is human beings, and the way they interact with technology often doesn’t really take into account the fact that they’re dealing with real people. So, is it easier to regulate the internet? Not without some massive unintended consequences that I think are beyond the ken, understanding, and desire of the same people who want to regulate the internet. You can't ban toxic speech without banning speech, and you can't ban toxic speech without defining it. And there's always going to be people that think toxic speech is different than your own definition.
SIERRA: Why is the U.S. so slow or reluctant to create laws and regulations that curtail the parts of this that everyone seems so unhappy with?
SEGAL: Yeah, I think it's because we were so successful. Right? I think the internet grew so fast, and created such wealth, and became global and is just this amazing American success story, right? It was created by DARPA, the Defense Agency Research Project. So it is this amazing kind of American invention that became a global platform. And we were really afraid to mess it up. People thought that the regulation would stifle innovation, and there were real First Amendment concerns that are still making it really hard to figure out what we're going to do about content in the United States. And then I think there was also some hubris that everybody would just accept the American model, and realize that that was in their best interest. And I have been in several meetings with U.S. government officials with a counterpart either for example, Indian or Chinese for that matter, where the U.S. tries to lecture to the other side. Like ‘no, no, no, a global open internet is in your best interest. You're going to lose out on the economic benefits if you try to control the internet.’ And those countries were like, well one, who are you to be lecturing us on our own interest? And two, you're wrong. We can figure it out about how to control the internet and still grow. And the Chinese have, the Chinese have managed to do that pretty well.
Okay, so that’s the American internet: overflowing with innovation and profit; but very light on regulations and privacy. And that leads us to the other end of the spectrum: China, home to roughly 1 billion internet users, and the most regulated internet system on Earth.
TIME: China’s great firewall just became even bigger. Blocking the free flow of information on the internet even further.
CNN Business: War is already playing out between the U.S. and China on the technological battlefield.
PBS NewsHour: Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies are building 5G and smart cities in more than 65 countries.
Rachel Martin: China is cracking down on mass protests that broke out over the weekend.
Emily Fang: They’re stopping random people and checking their phones for apps like telegram and instagram. All mentions of them are being deleted online. And there has been no official acknowledgement that these demonstrations even happened over the weekend.
SEGAL: From the very beginning, when China connected to the internet, they thought of it as a dual edge sword. So they knew that the internet was going to be extremely important for economic development, but they from the beginning were very worried about the flow of information from the outside into China that they couldn't control, that would threaten the legitimacy and the stability of the Communist Party. So what the Chinese did at the very beginning was block information from the outside, which we refer to or know as ‘The Great Firewall.’ So, blocking information. And they blocked U.S. companies that wouldn't play by those rules. So we saw Google and Facebook trying to enter the China market, but then basically having to pull back because they were unwilling to censor, or eventually the cost of censoring became too much for them so they withdrew from the market.
Across the world, when you sign on to the internet, you find the same companies - Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest of the American giants. They may look a bit different based on location, but they’re there. Once you cross over into China though, that changes completely.
Instead of Google, you’ll be searching on Baidu. Instead of Amazon, you’ll find yourself shopping on Alibaba or TaoBao. For dating, instead of Tinder you may use Momo or Tantan. And for social media, you’ll find yourself using Weibo, QQ, or the incredibly popular WeChat.
SEGAL: Again, for a Chinese user, if you're interested in K-pop, the internet is fantastic. And the Chinese internet has had lots of innovations that we haven't. The big one being WeChat, which is a platform that allows you to do almost everything. So it's a messenger, and a payment system, and you can't get a cab without it any longer in China. And so it's everything in one place. And there have been lots OF breakthroughs on services and things like that in the Chinese case. But one way to think about the Chinese internet is, as we mentioned, The Great Firewall exists to keep things out. And then, inside, there are just a lot of controls to make sure people don't post things that are against the party. Real name registration. Everybody has to register to their accounts, their social media accounts with their real name. There's no anonymity like there is on Twitter. So, it makes it very easy to get arrested or called in for questioning. All the technology companies in China, social media is responsible for what they post. So in the United States we have intermediate liability under something called Section 230, which says the companies are allowed to take some things down if they want to, but they're not legally responsible for what somebody puts up, if it's not true. In China, they are responsible, and so they hire tens of thousands of censors to take things down. And then you can be called in if you post something that the Chinese government doesn't like, you can be what's called, ‘called in for tea,’ which means the local ministry of public security comes by and says, don't post that again.
SIERRA: I can remember years ago when some people thought that access to information would undermine the ability of the communist party to retain control. But it doesn't look like that happened.
SEGAL: No, I mean, so there was a great quote from President Clinton…
Bill Clinton: Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet. Good luck. That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall.
SEGAL: And it turns out that Chinese are pretty good at nailing jello to the wall. So there is the question about what access to information that they get. But the other thing that we saw is that the Chinese were not only concerned about the access to the information, they were really concerned about organizing. So any time they saw any type of organization, then they quickly shut everything down and really made an example of those people in real life. So we see tight controls, we see restrictions from the outside, and then finally, we see kind of a flooding. So, positive messaging about the party and what a great job the party is doing. What a great job the government is doing. This is known as wumao, which is the 50 Cent Army, which is how much that they were reportedly paid for each posting. They would post positive things about Uncle Xi and what a great job the Chinese Communist party was doing. So a very, very tightly controlled internet cutoff for the most part for internal users from the rest of the world.
To recap, the Chinese Internet model shows that it’s possible to control what a large population is able to see online, while also regulating what they’re able to say there. It’s tightly restricted, and rife with propaganda. Interestingly though, it does share one common denominator with the American Internet - in both places citizen’s data is up for grabs. In The U.S., it’s exploited by corporations, whereas in China, it’s exploited by the government.
And that leads us to the final model: Europe.
WION: The European Union is now proposing to impose hefty fines to keep the tech giants in check.
Channel 4 News: Say hello to GDPR. It's being described as the biggest shake up of data protection laws in a generation, giving ordinary people unprecedented control over the information companies’ hold on us.
CNBC: We’ve seen anti-trust action from the European commission. They fined google a combined 9.5 billion dollars.
TRT World Now: European Union has threatened to ban Twitter in its territory unless the company’s owner, Elon Musk, makes sure that Twitter abides by its laws on content moderation.
SEGAL: What happened very quickly in Europe was that they decided privacy, data privacy, was a human right. Again, a lot of this came out of history. It came out of World War II and Germany was a leader on this, that the state collecting data on you is a step towards fascism and authoritarian states. And the technology companies having this kind of data is also. So very early on, the Europeans said, well, we want to regulate how that data's collected, who has access to it, and to put more restrictions on it than the United States had on those provisions. Now, the Europeans have always said, ‘we want to encourage innovation and growth,’ but the regulatory environment never really seemed to grow, right? It's very hard to think of Big Tech platforms that came out of Europe. Spotify is one, Skype is another. But compared to what came out of Silicon Valley, it’s much, much less.
BRADFORD: So the EU then really became globally known as the privacy regulator, when it adopted the general data privacy regulation, the GDPR in 2016. So that is a major piece of regulation focused on enhancing user privacy, and then restraining what is known as surveillance capitalism, the way the platform companies are exploiting the user's data.
You know those terms of service agreements that you always sign but never read? Accepting them often gives private companies access to an extraordinary amount of data on your phone. It’s an open secret - roughly 60 percent of Americans believe that it’s not possible to go through a day without having their data tracked in one way or another. And on this front, Europe has pushed back much harder than the U.S.
BRADFORD: So, the privacy has certainly been one issue. But the EU has also been very focused on deploying antitrust laws to reduce the power of the largest platform. So that is another element of that regulatory approach. And then third, I would say content moderation. So there's been various voluntary codes, on mitigating hate speech and disinformation that the EU has signed with the leading tech platforms. And then very recently, so this year, there was a major piece of legislation that was adopted, the Digital Services Act, that then takes this content moderation regulation to another level. So the EU is setting binding rules on how to improve accountability and transparency, when it comes to content moderation by these leading platforms.
SIERRA: So if I'm browsing Facebook, which is an American company, but I'm in the EU, my privacy would be better protected there, even though it's from an American company that doesn't have the same rules?
SEGAL: Yeah, so Facebook operating in Europe has to abide by those rules. And so part of those rules are, for example, there's a right to be forgotten in Europe. So as a teenager, you might have done something really dumb, it got posted to Instagram and it's still up there and you are applying for jobs now, and you're afraid it's going to be up there. In Europe you have the right to ask for that to be taken out.
SIERRA: Oh, that's nice.
SEGAL: Right? And so if you're Google or Facebook and there's a court that rules that if it's a legitimate reason to take it down, then they'll take it down. We don't have that right in the United States. We're all now partly seeing that right now, every website we go to there's a pop-up that asks you about the cookies that you're willing and the data that you're willing to share. That's because of European law. So the operators of those websites either are operating in Europe at the same time, and so they have to ensure that the data is being either stored locally or how it's being shared in the U.S. is equivalent to what happens in Europe.
Here’s how it works. Nations within the EU can fine companies up to 4% of their annual revenue if they violate the rules of GDPR. And this applies to any U.S. company with EU users.
For example, in 2019, France fined Google $57 million because they failed to obtain consent for user’s personalized ads.
GDPR was a win for private users in Europe, but it caused headaches for companies that built their business around user data and targeted ads.
WHEELER: No one paid attention in American tech companies to GDPR until the day it was put into force and all of a sudden a bunch of regulatory filings happened that meant that American companies could no longer transfer information inside the European Union unless they abided by GDPR. And it was as if all of a sudden the eyes of every C-level executive other than the CTO were opened unto the reality of the fact that there's a world outside of the United States, and sometimes we have to do what they want us to do if you want to sell in their market.
On average, companies are estimated to have paid more than $1.4 million dollars each, in order to come into compliance with the new law. It was a costly development for the tech sector. And some experts think that that may have been the whole point.
WHEELER: Now, why would the European Union be doing something like this? First, there's a good strong argument that a lot of what they're doing is very important to make sure that they can regulate and handle speech issues, privacy issues inside the European Union that are not adequately compensated for under American law. We don't have good privacy regulation in the United States. It's being done state by state, California, Colorado had that done state by state, but we don't have national privacy legislation. But there's also an underlying frustration, I think, in the European Union over the fact that they don't have a native Apple, Google, Facebook. There is no giant provider like that in the European Union. And so there's a question about whether or not the EU could regulate their way to having something like that by trying to level the playing field or if they could just tax their way to it. So again, the question kind of comes to the point here about whether or not the European Union is taxing or regulating its way to trying to be an equal player competitively or because there's an actual underlying element thereof desiring to protect citizens. Could be both, could be neither.
So, perhaps the EU’s motivation is not entirely based on personal privacy. But other analysts, including Anu, disagree that regulations like GDPR are motivated by tech-sector jealousy, or competitive goals.
BRADFORD: The biggest tech companies happen to be all American. But they also happen to be the biggest companies that create the biggest problems in the digital marketplace. And if you look at the domain where the EU has probably gone furthest in it’s regulation, antitrust, there's been three cases against Google over 10 billion in fines, yes, the EU was going after Google. But who brought the initial complaint? Tt was Microsoft. Tt was another American company. There is no European search engine that the Europeans are trying to protect when going after Facebook. Again, there is no European social media company that is a rival to Facebook. Often it is other American companies challenging the conduct of their competitors in the EU fighting the civil war in the European territory, because there's nothing that they can get from Washington.
Whether you believe that the EU’s privacy laws were created for the protection of the people or just to be a thorn in the side of big American tech, these restrictions mean a different internet environment. And whatever you think about it, Europe is showing the world that it’s possible to have the Internet and a bit of privacy too.
SIERRA: So what, does the future hold? Who will come out on top of the three internets?
SEGAL: I don't know if there's going to be a winner. I think there's going to be spheres of influence. I think there's a lot of authoritarian developing states that are going to find parts of the Chinese model attractive. The Chinese have the resources to help them build it, they're training, they're bringing people over. The big issue is going to be kind of the developing south. And in my mind it's going to be driven mostly by capacity, and capacity building.
The developing south, which includes Africa, much of the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, has been turning to China for help building roads, bridges and other infrastructure as part of the Belt and Road initiative.
But it’s not just brick-and-mortar development. In 2015, Beijing launched the Digital Silk Road project, which focuses on providing digital infrastructure to the same regions. Under DSR, countries get help with things like telecommunications, artificial intelligence, e-commerce and surveillance. In return, China gets to expand its global tech footprint, promote tech-based authoritarianism, and gain access to a far larger pool of user data.
At least 16 developing countries have publicly joined in, but the actual number could be as high as 138.
SEGAL: So the Chinese in some ways have a leg up because they're building the infrastructure, right? And while we saw, for example, Facebook talking about building infrastructure in India and other places, the way that they wanted to do it alienated everybody. So the U.S. has to figure out how do we compete on infrastructure to have a chance that more countries adopt that model.
SIERRA: So I've heard about a Tech Cold War with China. What impact is that having?
SEGAL: Yeah, so the Tech Cold War idea is kind of a militarizing of this idea of different models, and the threat of Chinese technology itself. So as Chinese tech companies globalized and the social media platforms globalized, the U.S. became increasingly worried about, oh, did that create vulnerabilities in U.S. systems? And who had access to the data? The first and kind of archetypal example of this was a company called Huawei, which is a Chinese telecom provider. And in particular Huawei was the leader on 5G, the fifth generation of telecom so far for our cell phones, which is going to be faster and have lower latency and allow self-driving cars and all these other things. Now, the U.S. doesn't produce 5G, we don't have any telecom equipment manufacturers. So there's Huawei and then there's two European companies, Nokia and Ericsson. And Huawei was expanding very quickly globally, it's cheaper than Nokia and Ericsson, and the United States basically started saying, look, if you use Huawei, you're going to have some real cybersecurity risks, because the Chinese government can turn to Huawei and say, turn it off or disrupt it or hand us the data. And so the U.S. kind of started campaigning about ripping Huawei out of the US. So some telecoms, particularly in the interior of the U.S., was using Huawei, blocking Huawei, you can't buy a Huawei handset, things like that in the United States. And then trying to convince other countries not to use Huawei. So Canada used Huawei, the U.K. used Huawei, a lot of our European allies in the U.S., we really mounted this large campaign against Huawei. So that started to have some effect in the Trump administration, countries for a number of reasons, started saying, all right, we're going to block Huawei from this next generation. Now we see it with TikTok.
SIERRA: I was going to say it sounds similar to the worries with TikTok?
SEGAL: So TikTok, the worries are more and more people are using it and you put that app on your phone and TikTok like all apps, gets a lot of access to the data on your phone, right? Your location, your camera, possibly your address book. So there are concerns that it allows the Chinese to do intelligence gathering, although I don't think that's the primary concern, but there's also a concern about what we would call ‘influence operations.’ So with TikTok, we don't really know why we see the videos we see. The algorithm learns what you like and it serves you up things. So there's concern again, even though TikTok says no, we've separated from ByteDance, the Chinese company, that the Chinese can influence stories that we see. There were some cases, for example, in Hong Kong when there were the protests about democracy, they were very hard to find any of those stories on TikTok. So we now see a lot of concern about those things and the U.S. is trying to convince other countries to do the same thing. Now again, the Chinese have always said, oh, we know the U.S. intelligence services are cooperating with the U.S. tech companies, and so it's safer for us to start taking those companies out of our systems. So we see China trying to get rid of Cisco and Qualcomm and the other ones. And as we talked about at the beginning, they've always blocked U.S. social media. So we are beginning to see a kind of divergence of those stacks, and we're beginning to see Washington and Beijing reaching out to others saying, ‘you guys should choose one of us,’ which the other countries don't want to do.
SIERRA: Right. Well what about everyone else? Especially big countries, you know, you mentioned India or Brazil, where are they headed and do they have to pick one of the, I guess, three to join?
SEGAL: Yeah. I think the big countries really don't want to choose and will probably pick and choose. So India for example, blocked TikTok and banned TikTok and almost 200 other Chinese apps, after the conflict in the border in the Himalayas, and so to punish the Chinese, and they were also concerned about information gathering and data. But we also see that the Indians have a lot of concerns about communal violence and blasphemy and other things. And so they are looking to more tightly regulate the internet than U.S. companies are comfortable with. And the Indians want to inspect both Chinese product and U.S. product. They have a strong and long tradition of technological, or seeking technological autonomy, and don't really want to do that. So I think India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, they're gonna pick and choose.
Back when it launched, the internet seemed limitless and borderless. But that vision has given way to an era of silos, one that is reinforcing regional information bubbles, and driving us further and further apart in our digital lives.
SIERRA: Do you see this splintering as having been inevitable?
SEGAL: I do, because the internet really was a kind of creation of a unique culture. We talk about Silicon Valley, but this combination of free speech, the First Amendment and a very light regulatory hand, is really very, very American. That just doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. And so of course when other countries were confronted with this platform, they brought different political concerns to it. So, it always struck me from the beginning that of course, countries were going to try to regulate. And there were many people in the nineties and the two-thousands that wrote about this. They just weren't the dominant voices. People were kind of like, ‘Oh, you political scientists, what do you know? What’re you talking about? Or you're so narrow minded, you don't see the liberatory potential of it.’ The debate in the United States has really shifted and soured around 2016. But before that, we really had a much more optimistic view about the internet and the technology companies themselves.
WHEELER: The downsides of a splintered internet go to the same downsides of any situation where there's partisanship. We've all seen the pain and problems that partisanship in the United States causes us. A lot of it has to do with a lack of the capacity to understand and accept reality. If you've been taught that a different reality exists, and if you shut your mind to the possibility of an alternate point of view, how do you come to a shared understanding of what geopolitical concerns are, what rights are, what a person is owed by their government and what we owe to each other? How do you even talk about reality? The number of people who don't know that the Tiananmen Square protests existed in China, or who genuinely believe that it was all mocked up. The number of people who equate those two things in China is large. So how do you get to that shared sense of reality? The more we see that splintering, the consequence of this, the more we're going to see a differentiation in reality because information is how we make our reality. So that's where I think we're going with this. Just in case you wanted to end on this super depressing note.
SIERRA: That was awesome ... Thank you. Yeah.
WHEELER: You're welcome. No problem. Absolutely no problem.
SIERRA: And we’re all doomed.
WHEELER: I'm here for your downers all day long.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is produced by Asher Ross and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Our associate podcast producer is Molly McAnany. Our intern this semester is Mormei Zanke.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. This episode was the brainchild of our former AP, Rafaela Siewart. Extra help was provided by Kali Robinson and Claire Klobucista.
Our theme music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. We’d also like to thank Richard Haass, Jeff Reinke and our co-creator Jeremy Sherlick.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you around!
In its early years, proponents of the internet heralded its ability to transcend national borders, equalize access to information, and even promote democracy. Many predicted that any attempt to regulate freedom of speech on the internet would fail.
Now, governments the world over are pursuing vastly different regulatory frameworks, and the dream of a single, free internet is fading. In the United States, freedom of speech and a laissez-faire approach have led to enormous success for companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon. At the same time, many analysts say, the U.S. internet is rife with misinformation, toxic content, and “surveillance capitalism.” In China, the Great Firewall and an army of content moderators have successfully brought the digital realm under control of the Chinese Communist Party. And in Europe, regulators have had surprising success implementing protections for data privacy and the “right to be forgotten.”
Will one model eventually win out? And if not, what will a balkanized digital world mean?
Justin Sherman, “Russia’s Internet Censor Is Also a Surveillance Machine,” Net Politics
Kathy Huang, “Where Is the Red Line on China’s Internet?,” Asia Unbound
Jason Pielemeier, “Reinvigorating Internet Policy by Doubling Down on Human Rights,” Net Politics
From Our Guests
Adam Segal, The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age
Adam Segal, “Confronting Reality in Cyberspace: Foreign Policy for a Fragmented Internet," Council on Foreign Relations
Adam Segal, “The Internet Is Fragmented. What Should the United States Do Now?,” Net Politics
Adam Segal, “The Coming Tech Cold War With China,” Foreign Affairs
Tarah Wheeler, Women in Tech: Take Your Career to the Next Level with Practical Advice and Inspiring Stories
Tarah Wheeler, “In Cyberwar, There Are No Rules,” Foreign Policy
Joy Dong, “China’s Internet Censors Try a New Trick: Revealing Users’ Locations,” New York Times
Moisés Naím, “A World With Three Internets,” El País
Joshua Park, “Breaking the Internet: China-U.S. Competition Over Technology Standards,” The Diplomat
Sarah Cook, “Countering Beijing’s Media Manipulation,” Journal of Democracy
David Silverberg, “How China-U.S. rivalry Is Dividing the Internet,” BBC
Watch and Listen
“Russia and China Are in a Battle With the U.S. Over Control of an Obscure Tech Agency,” All Things Considered, NPR
National Security and Defense Program