Welcome to the Splinternet

A few years from now, every country will have a very different, national internet.

Yes, we’ll still have access to many global platforms, but very soon using the web in different parts of the world will be more like visiting a foreign country was in the 1970’s. A nuanced and culturally different experience. In the long arc of history, national and regional policies move like tides, across generations. The tide has turned against a one size fits all Techtopia. But first, let’s remind ourselves how we got to now.

Global Utopia?

In the early 1990’s it seemed as though our geopolitical future was determined. Capitalism and democratic freedoms had won. Assisted by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism in Eastern Europe and a burgeoning new communications technology called the internet, borders and knowledge opened up. We quickly globalised through mutually beneficial trade and cultural understanding. But this era of unfettered globalisation is coming to an abrupt end.

Economies the world over are starting to re-nationalise, put up technological boundaries, and remember that at a certain level of income, what a country believes in is more important than pure economics.

The financial benefits of the web are very unevenly distributed. A simple example is this: Revenue per employee of the Ford Motor company is $682,000 while Facebook has revenue of $2.3 million per employee – and that’s even before relative profitability is taken into account. In the western world, the many benefits of globalisation have gone to emerging technocrats and the shareholder class, and the middle class and Governments are starting to notice. Regulation will take hold in every country limiting the power of big tech and openness of the web. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but it is happening.

Bonus: this short song is a must listen to what the internet has become (You won’t regret it)

The Splinternet

It was in many parts the web was a new economic paradigm without a policy.

Up until 2010 Google had a 30 per cent market share of search in China before they abruptly left that market amid a cloud of hacking, censorship and PRC policy conflicts. We can see national value systems emerging via internet policy, resulting in a Splinternet.

China: has already removed all US tech firms from its shores (Including Linkedin just today), it sees the internet as a tool of Sovereignty and Surveillance. The policy has been one of allowing innovations in the short term to learn from and copy, be it US tech firms, or blockchain-based technologies until such time that they can launch sovereign versions and remove the intruders. While it seems draconian to us to hear about the internet is being used by the PRC to maintain total control, the people (of mainland China at least) seem happy to sacrifice liberty, for continued prosperity and improved living standards.

Europe: the internet has become a battle around Data and Privacy. In the European Union the internet is increasingly about protecting people and local firms from the evils of the internet, rather than trying to build out dominant firms in the space.

USA: is trying to tame the beast that is Big Tech, A set of corporate institutions more powerful than nation states. A beast which is dividing their society socially, economically and politically. As of today the top seven technology firms in the US have a collective market capitalisation of $US9.9 trillion. This has increased more than 30 per cent in a single year. The internet on its shores is set to be heavily regulated like manufacturing and traditional media and eventually broken into many more pieces as inevitable antitrust actions take hold.

Australia: recent events have triggered the end of the www, or the wild-wild-west, and now we are taking steps to create the social and economic boundaries society is demanding. This is an especially easy move to make given we hardly benefit from big tech’s dominance. The accumulation of Government intervention cannot go unnoticed, regardless of their actual effectiveness. Policies including the News Media Bargaining Code, the G7 global tax agreement, the High Court ruling that firms are responsible for comments on their managed pages and recent commentary from the Morrison Government about making social media giants needing to be accountable for content on their platforms are all part of a huge shift.

Something is wrong with the internet!

“Something is wrong with the internet”… was a statement made widely around the world early last week as the Entire Facebook Eco-System was down for around 7 hours.

It would be easy to think these noobs were wrong describing the Facebook outage as being a problem with the ‘internet’ – but oh, how right they were. In fact, 2.8 billion people were locked out which is more than 60% of the world internet population. The fact that it has become many peoples only tool of communication on the web is an absolute travesty. In a grand irony, Facebook staff got locked out of their own HQ because they used Facebook apps as their building entry tool. They even had to get tradespeople in with angle grinders to break locks and get into office doors. Many small businesses couldn’t connect with their customers.

All this is a reminder that in a civilised society, we need to civilise our technology.

Whether it is splitting up companies that have too much power, stopping the spread of misinformation, adding safety features, making companies responsible for products they put in market and regulating so that economic benefits are shared more widely across society. Just imagine if we didn’t have road rules, or any safety features in cars or need a drivers licence. it’s unthinkable.

Pure capitalism is as dangerous as communism is. What we need is a balance of rules and regulations so that we can participate in the economy in a civilised manner – and be the beneficiaries of technology delivered by thoughtful legislators and profit seeking, yet compliant corporations. Because as far as I can tell, not company in the history of capitalism has ever self regulated out of the goodness of their hearts.

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Keep Thinking,