But if such territorial arrangements become more common, the globally connected internet, we know it will become more like what some have called the “splinternet”, or a collection of different internet, whose boundaries are defined by boundaries national or regional.
A combination of growing nationalism, trade disputes, and concerns about the market dominance of some global tech companies has sparked threats of regulatory shocks worldwide. In the process, these forces are using not only technology companies that built massive businesses with the promise of a global internet, but also the very idea of building platforms that can be accessed and used in the same way by anyone anywhere in the world.
And the cracks just seem to be deepening.
“I think there’s a global trend toward much more internet fragmentation than has been fragmented in the past,” Daphne Keller, director of the platform adjustment program at Stanford University’s Center for Cyber Policy, told CNN Business.
It is a very different landscape from the one that allowed American tech firms to amass great wealth and power. With notable exceptions like China and North Korea, Facebook and its peers were able to launch their products worldwide with little backlash. Now that opening may no longer be given.
“What is legal in Sweden is not legal in Pakistan, and so we need to find a way to reconcile it with the way the internet works,” Keller said. The result is that “either voluntary platforms or governments are forcibly raising geographical barriers in order to see things differently in one country than in another.”
While Facebook is not the only tech company between governments across the globe, it is perhaps more iconic than any other Silicon Valley business of promising a global internet that goes against the laws of different countries.
Now, Facebook is turning to what has become an increasingly proven reading book for the tech industry: threatening to pull its products out of the markets in the face of adverse regulation.
This time, at least, the game book 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 each other’s directions to brake on Big Tech. These companies ultimately depend on constant access to billions of users worldwide, and governments have shown that they are willing to cut off that access in the name of protecting citizens and their sovereignty online.
The stakes will only increase if more governments are thrown into the gang.
“It’s kind of a chicken game,” said Sinan Aral, a professor at MIT Sloan Business School and author of “Hype Machinery: How Social Media Disrupts Our Choices, Our Economy, and Our Health.”
Aral says companies such as Facebook and Google will face a slippery slope if they start coming out of any marketplace that requires them to pay for its news, which would “severely limit” the content they can access. serve their global user base.
“They have a vested interest in trying to force any market not to impose such regulations by threatening to withdraw,” he said. “The other party is basically saying, ‘If you do not pay for the content, you will not have access to our customer market or the content in that market.’ ”
As internet fractures, global regulators come together
A fight for news in Australia is a relatively small part of the clash between technology and governments, which has mainly focused on issues such as censorship, privacy and competition. But the response to Facebook’s move to Australia has shown that a more international effort to curb Big Tech may be gaining momentum – and with it, the potential for additional Internet service outages from one country to another.
As his government tackled Facebook last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a warning to the social media giant: what you do here may turn out to hurt you in other countries.
“It would be extremely useful if governments were to come together in some kind of transnational process and come up with a treaty or some kind of standard about who can extend and influence content and information outside their national territory,” he said. Keller, “because that’s what a lot of them are trying to do but haven’t done, and so as a result you get this very fragmented plot of land.”
If that added fragmentation is allowed to reach its natural end, however, the consequences can be dire.
“If the end result of this is that we have social media platforms in every country or large market that are segregated, then what we will have is an information ecosystem that is completely duplicated or fragmented across the globe.” tha Aral. “What he warns is a citizen who has completely different sets of information about local events, about world events and perhaps a very fragmented worldview of reality.”
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