The Dream of a Global Internet Is Dead
Trump’s ban on Chinese apps is part of a tide of digital nationalism
Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.
“The dream behind the Web,” wrote the person who invented it, “is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.”
That was Tim Berners-Lee, writing in 1997, eight years after he proposed the idea that would become the World Wide Web. He went on: “There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.”
At the time, Berners-Lee felt that the first part of his dream — a common global information space — had been largely realized. The second part — that much of real life would move online, such that computers could analyze and reshape it — had “yet to happen,” he conceded, though there were “signs and plans that make us confident.”
Today, we know that the second part of his dream was realized as well, though not necessarily in the ways he had hoped. Distinctions between real life and the internet have collapsed, especially since the pandemic, and as a result our interactions have become more trackable and analyzable. That tracking and analysis, however, has turned out to be more often a tool of manipulation, division, and exploitation than of cooperation for the greater good.
Meanwhile, the first part of Berners-Lee’s dream has quietly eroded even as the second has come to dark fruition. The open Web, as a universal venue for interaction, has been gradually supplanted by self-contained platforms controlled by giant corporations, like iOS, Android, Facebook, Amazon.
While those platforms were never quite universal, until recently they offered roughly the same experience to users across much of the globe, with China and to a lesser extent Russia as glaring exceptions, among a few others. Now, even that semblance of common ground is rapidly fracturing, as nationalist political movements around the world begin to stake out their own digital territories and erect barriers to foreign platforms. For the first time, that includes the United States.
Digital nationalism hits home.
- The future of Chinese technology in the United States is uncertain after the Trump administration on Thursday issued a pair of executive orders targeting Chinese-owned apps. The first barred Americans or American companies from transacting with ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of the wildly popular video app TikTok. The second did the same for WeChat, the social app that’s dominant in China and important to Americans with ties to China, but has a much smaller English-language user base. The orders’ legality and enforceability are murky.
- The U.S. assault on Chinese tech is likely to broaden, barring some kind of diplomatic detente. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expanded “Clean Network” plan to banish “untrusted” Chinese apps from U.S. app stores, among other measures. While TikTok and WeChat were the only ones mentioned by name, it would seem to imply that more are in the crosshairs. The plan would also bar U.S. app makers from pre-installing their apps on Chinese-made Huawei smartphones, and prohibit certain types of U.S. data from being stored on the clouds of Chinese companies such as Alibaba and Baidu. It builds on previous plans that focused on 5G networks, while the specific bans on ByteDance and WeChat echo the administration’s earlier Huawei ban.
- Microsoft is still trying to buy TikTok, and now has a 45-day window to complete a deal, per the executive order. After initial rumors centered on TikTok’s operations in the United States and a few other English-speaking countries, the Financial Times reported Thursday that Microsoft is now interested in acquiring TikTok’s entire global business. (The app does not operate in mainland China, where ByteDance offers a similar app called Douyin that would remain in its control.) Early rumors put the price tag between $10 and $30 billion.
- The bans seem to be motivated more by politics than specific concerns about how these apps collect data. TikTok, for its part, said it was shocked by Trump’s order, given steps it had taken to address the administration’s stated concerns about the potential for Chinese surveillance of U.S. users. The underlying issue, to the extent that it’s genuine, would be that the Chinese government’s own laws give it broad grounds to compel Chinese companies to share data, opening the possibility that it could somehow use their products secretly as tools of propaganda or spycraft. The Trump administration has produced no evidence of Chinese spying via TikTok or WeChat, and TikTok insists it doesn’t store U.S. user data on Chinese servers. Several U.S. lawsuits allege otherwise. The Wall Street Journal had a plain-language primer earlier last month on TikTok’s data and security practices.
- The U.S. crackdown on Chinese tech marks a new chapter in the history of the internet. For decades the United States has exemplified a laissez-faire approach to tech regulation and encouraged countries around the world to follow suit. It decried China’s “Great Firewall” as a barrier to trade and a tool of censorship and repression. It has given its internet giants broad leeway to amass market power and user data even as the European Union tried to rein them in. Now, under Trump, the United States is taking an approach previously associated with authoritarian regimes by banning foreign apps wholesale on thinly justified national security grounds. No longer do China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea look like exceptions to a global norm of borderless tech and free information flow.
- That seismic shift will reverberate as other countries follow suit. While some may target Chinese tech, others will likely take aim at U.S. giants such as Google and Facebook, using the companies’ sketchy privacy practices or ties to America’s own surveillance apparati as an excuse to restrict online speech. In a working paper published online this week, Stanford Law Professor Mark Lemley makes the case that the Splinternet is upon us. “It extends beyond software; we are increasingly building different hardware networks, and may ultimately end up with entirely separate internets,” he writes. Lemley makes clear that he views this as a bad thing, though his analysis is worth reading even if you disagree. For a more optimistic view of the trend, this thread by Basecamp’s David Heinemeier Hansson is a provocative starting point.
- The global trend toward government control of online platforms was already well underway outside the United States, of course. India in June banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, amid escalating tensions between the two countries. Nikhil Pahwa, the Indian journalist and digital rights activist who founded MediaNama, told me he views the ban as primarily a political act. (You can read his initial analysis of the U.S. crackdown on TIkTok here.) But he said it’s hard to argue against countries erecting such barriers when there are also legitimate security and privacy concerns. “I think there is a split that we’re accelerating toward,” he said. “Just like the Chinese internet and Russian internet, that are very distinct from the rest of the world, I think we’re going to see more of these blocs getting created, where jurisdictions are going to assert their sovereignty in the same manner the EU is doing when it comes to privacy.” Speaking of which…
- You may recall that in July, the EU dealt a major blow to U.S. tech companies when it struck down the “Privacy Shield” data protection agreement. The agreement had allowed companies to store data on European users on U.S. servers on certain conditions. Now that will become much more difficult. Just as the United States and India cited concerns of Chinese government surveillance, the EU’s ruling cited concerns of U.S. government surveillance. Again, the concerns are not unfounded, as Edward Snowden’s leaks made clear. Taken to their logical conclusion, however, these arguments could lead almost any country to take action against almost any other country’s technology.
- Let’s rewind to the 1990s and the heady early days of the consumer internet. Berners-Lee wasn’t alone in his view that the web would transcend national boundaries. John Perry Barlow, the late founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a cyberlibertarian visionary of the modern internet, wrote an influential Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” he wrote. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
- The rallying cry helped inspire the fledgling internet industry to fight back against, circumvent, and overwhelm efforts at regulation in the ensuing decades, especially in the United States. But as April Glaser pointed out in Slate upon his death in 2018, Barlow’s vision failed to account for the ways that giant corporations and malign private actors might control, manipulate, and exploit an ungoverned internet in ways every bit as harmful as governments. As those harms have become undeniable, they have helped to justify reassertions of state control over the online world — some in good faith, others less so.
- I argued in this newsletter three weeks ago that you’d be able to tell whether a TikTok ban was in good faith by whether it also addressed the national security concerns raised by America’s own social platforms. Trump’s executive orders don’t even mention those, and his assaults on U.S. tech companies revolve almost exclusively around perceived slights to himself and his supporters. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that a U.S. government contractor embedded location-tracking software in apps used on hundreds of millions of phones around the world. Remind us again which country’s mobile software is supposed to be the surveillance threat?
- Twenty-three years after Berners-Lee imagined a World Wide Web that would serve as a common information space, the global information space may be fracturing beyond repair. Twenty-four years after Barlow wrote that the governments of the industrial world have no sovereignty over cyberspace, the governments of the industrial world beg to differ. The internet is indeed resilient and adaptable, as they foresaw — but so are the multinational corporation and the nation-state. It’s now clear that, to the extent the internet represents real life, it eventually becomes subject to the same forces and power struggles that govern everything else. For better or worse, the dream of a truly global, open internet is dead.
Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time
- TikTok proved that a social app can transcend cultural barriers, tech veteran Eugene Wei argued in his blog Remains of the Day, even as it ran up against governmental ones. After all, it wouldn’t have drawn such scrutiny in the United States if it hadn’t been the first Chinese-owned app to crack the market in the first place. Wei’s in-depth post is a fascinating dive into TikTok’s history from a product standpoint, and shows how the same interest-based algorithm can transcend disparate cultural contexts. Related, and also worthwhile, is Eva Dou’s Washington Post piece on why a TikTok backlash was inevitable. And for a more critical look at TikTok’s cultural influence, read Jason Parham in Wired on the particular brand of “digital blackface” that the platform seems to foster, or Tatiana Walk-Morris’s February piece on the same problem for OneZero.
- Google’s smart speakers were secretly listening for smoke alarms and other “critical sounds” for some users who hadn’t signed up for any such service, the company admitted after a Reddit post exposed the practice. While the O.P. found it “pretty rad,” Google told Protocol’s Janko Roettgers that the feature — recently developed for its Nest Aware home-security subscription service — was accidentally enabled in a software update for some non-subscribers and has since been retracted. Google recently took a 6% state in the home security company ADT, and as Roettgers notes, this hints at how Google could use its Home speakers to gain an edge in that market. It is also, as the Guardian’s Alex Hern observed, a bit disconcerting to know that “Google Home can be silently updated to turn the mic on based on undisclosed auditory cues.” Cue the conspiracy theories, and while we’re on the topic…
- People who share misinformation and conspiracy theories actually do care about the truth, according to a report from the nonprofit First Draft. In fact, they’re hyper-concerned with truth — they just think it’s being hidden from them. The report highlights the different results surfaced by searching for “coronavirus facts,” which turns up official sites from authoritative sources, and “coronavirus truth,” which leads down conspiratorial rabbit holes. Understanding the different ways that people seek information, and the assumptions they bring to that search, is crucial to any effort to address the spread of misinformation online, the report concludes.
Headlines of the Week
— Ian Bogost, The Atlantic
— James Vincent, The Verge
— Maddie Stone, Washington Post
— County 10 (Fremont County, Wy.)
Thanks for reading Pattern Matching. Reach me with tips and feedback by responding to this post on the web, via Twitter direct message at @WillOremus, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.