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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”