The global web as we know it may be ending


However, in its announcement of the deal, Facebook hinted at the possibility of similar clashes in the future. “We will continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to promote regulatory frameworks that disregard the true exchange of value between publishers and platforms such as Facebook,” said Campbell Brown, vice president of global news partnerships. on Facebook. in a statement Tuesday.

But if such territorial arrangements become more common, the globally connected Internet we know will become more like what some have called the “splinternet,” or a collection of different Internet whose boundaries are determined by national or regional boundaries.

A combination of rising nationalism, trade disputes, and concerns about the market dominance of certain global tech companies has sparked threats of regulatory crackdown around the world. In the process, these forces are turning not only technology companies that built massive businesses on the promise of a global Internet, but also the very idea of ​​building platforms that anyone anywhere in the world can access and use in a way. the same way.

The year the world stopped waiting for big tech to fix themselves

And the cracks only seem to get deeper.

“I think there is a global tendency to fragment the Internet much more than it has fragmented in the past,” Daphne Keller, director of the program on platform regulation at the Cyber ​​Policy Center at Stanford University, told CNN Business.

As recent events have shown, a platform doesn’t need to be banned or shut down entirely for that fragmentation to occur. In response to Australia’s effort to make publishers pay, when Facebook stopped showing media links to its Australian users, users outside the country were also unable to access Australian media content. The temporary move was against the very premise that the Internet serves as a tool for the free flow of information globally.
In India, when warned that you are “welcome to do business” but “you must also respect Indian laws”, Twitter (TWTR) looked for a middle ground by holding some accounts They used what the government called “incendiary and baseless” hashtags, which means that those accounts were not visible within the country but could still be accessed outside. (The South Asian nation has also shown a greater willingness to go after foreign tech companies, proposing major restrictions on their operations and, amid a diplomatic showdown with China, banning TikTok and dozens of other Chinese-owned apps.) .
Twitter is caught between a rock and a hard place in India

It’s a very different landscape from the one that allowed American tech companies to accumulate enormous wealth and power. With notable exceptions like China and North Korea, Facebook and its peers were able to launch their products around the world with hardly any setbacks. Now that opening may no longer be a fact.

“What is legal in Sweden is not legal in Pakistan, so we have to find some way to reconcile that with the way the Internet works,” Keller said. The result is that “platforms voluntarily or governments by force are erecting geographic barriers, so that we see different things in one country than in another.”

The great retreat

While Facebook is not the only technology company in the sights of governments around the world, perhaps more emblematic than any other Silicon Valley company is the promise of a global Internet that goes against the laws of various countries.

Five years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was talking about his goal of reaching 5 billion users, or the majority of the world’s population. The company already has more than 3 billion monthly active users across its various applications, in testament to its rapid expansion around the world.
“We want anyone, anywhere, a child who grew up in rural India and never had a computer, to be able to go to a store, get a phone, go online and access the same things as you and I appreciate the internet, “Zuckerberg said in a 2013 interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Even in China, where the government’s online censorship apparatus known as the Great Firewall has blocked Western tech companies for decades, Facebook and Google sought to make concessions to be allowed in (albeit with little success).

Now, Facebook, instead, is turning to what has become an increasingly proven playbook for the tech industry: threatening to take its products off the market in the face of unfavorable regulation.

In 2014, Google (GOOGL) it shut down its Google News service in Spain after the country passed a law similar to the one Australia is now contemplating. In Australia, too, it threatened to pull its search engine out of the country under the same media law before finally releasing and signing deals with some of the country’s top publishers.

This time, at least, the playbook seemed to work somewhat for Facebook. But there are signs that countries around the world, including the United States, are more willing to play hard and follow in the footsteps of others to control big tech. Ultimately, those companies depend on continued access to billions of users around the world, and governments have shown that they are willing to cut off that access in the name of protecting their citizens and sovereignty online.

Facebook faces a global backlash for its attempt to & # 39;  intimidate & # 39;  Australia

The stakes will only increase if more governments jump on the bandwagon.

“It’s kind of a chicken game,” said Sinan Aral, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and author of “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Choices, Our Economy, And Our Health.”

Aral says that companies like Facebook and Google will find a slippery slope if they start to exit all markets that ask them to pay for their news, which would “severely limit” the content they can offer to their global user base.

“They have a great interest in trying to force any market not to impose such regulations by threatening to withdraw,” he said. “The other party basically says, ‘If you don’t pay for the content, you won’t have access to our consumer market or the content in this market.’

As the Internet Fractures, Global Regulators Merge

A fight over the news in Australia is a relatively small part of the clash between technology and governments, which has largely focused on issues such as censorship, privacy and competition. But the response to Facebook’s move in Australia has shown that a more international effort to curb big tech may be gathering momentum, and with it the potential for a further fracture of how internet services work from country to country.

When his government took on Facebook last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a warning to the social media giant: What you do here may again hurt you in other countries.

“These actions will only confirm the concerns that a growing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of big tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” he said in a Facebook post. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they are running it.”
On Tuesday, Morrison said Facebook’s decision to restore the news was “welcome”, adding that the government remained committed to moving forward with its legislation to ensure that “Australian journalists and news organizations receive fair compensation for content. original they produce “.
Several other countries, including the UK and Canada, are considering similar legislation against social media companies, and many of those countries are talking to each other about the best way to do it.

“It would be extremely helpful if governments came together in some kind of transnational process and came up with a treaty or some kind of standard about who can reach out and affect content and information outside of their national territory,” Keller said, “because that’s what a lot of them are trying to do, but haven’t, and as a result, you get this very fragmented mosaic. ”

However, if that further fragmentation is allowed to reach its natural conclusion, the consequences could be dire.

“If the end result of that is that we have social media platforms in all major countries or markets that are separate, then what we will have is an information ecosystem that is completely forked or divided around the world,” Aral said. “What that portends is a citizenry that has completely different sets of information about local events, about world events, and perhaps a very fragmented worldview of reality.”

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