Last week, in an interview with CNBC, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted that in the next ten or 15 years the internet will be split into two parts, independently developed by the United States and China. The question is important, not only in the context of the trade war between the two countries started by Donald Trump, but because of recent accusations of aggressive espionage tactics by China against US companies through LinkedIn or the successive cleanups of thousands of web sites by Beijing aimed at “protecting” the population from “harmful” material.
The latest China Internet Report 2018 compiled by Abacus, 500 Startups and the South China Morning Post paints a picture of an internet dominated by different players to those in other countries, with a total disregard for privacy, a credit rating system that intervenes in virtually every aspect of daily life, and that is now in a development phase where China no longer adapts ideas imported from the West, but instead is exporting its own.
Thanks to an all-powerful state with a long-game strategy, China is now rapidly overtaking the United States in areas such as AI and machine learning: want to see drones being used for deliveries? Go to China. Smartphones as a universally accepted form of payment, identification and everything else necessary for everyday life? China is the place to go. A growing number of companies, when they want to provide some visionary experience to their managers, send them to China. Foreign Affairs predicts China will end up running the internet, while Google fights to return to China with a product that bows to the demands of the Communist Party but that is supposedly better than nothing for theoretically information-hungry Chinese. At the same time, the company has to deal with a workforce that has made clear its opposition to working with Beijing, as well as the US government.
Some might argue that Schmidt’s prediction has already come true. I would say the internet has been undergoing a process of Balkanization for some time: if I travel to China and try to work as I would at home, I have to jump through increasingly complex hoops. As a rule, I do not use Chinese websites except for research, while few Chinese look at those from outside their country, not because they’re censored but because they’re not interested in them. For some time, I’ve have been telling my Chinese and Russian students particularly that knowledge of the tools, uses, customs and players in their respective countries will be a very interesting asset for companies targeting those markets, because the level of specificity has reached such a point that finding profiles with a multicultural perspective and that can properly manage those environments is getting harder.
Is there really only one internet? Language is clearly a factor, despite the progress of translation tools, but independent development has already turned some countries into islands with other internets that require particular knowledge, skills and where different rules apply, otherwise, you’re not going to get anywhere. I think that the Internet fragmented some time ago, and although we may see cases of Chinese companies launching products and services abroad and to a lesser extent in the opposite direction, the reality is that the internet outside China is already very different from the one say, in Europe and North America and the two are very unlikely to merge. The dream of a universal internet remains further away than ever.
(En español, aquí)