While it’s already no secret that the user experience of engaging with the internet is vastly different in China than it is in many other nations of the world — with Bloomberg and other media outlets referring to the censored version of the internet in China as the “Great Firewall of China” — it appears that at least one former Google CEO believes that the process is about to go even further in the years to come.
According to CNBC, ex-Google chief Eric Schmidt suggested to a crowd of tech investors that there may eventually be two distinctly divided internets — our own internet that the majority of the world currently participates in, relatively free of government intervention and content censorship, and a Chinese-led alternative. The Chinese internet experience is already heavily constrained and monitored compared to the larger internet, though there are many shared elements between them both.
Schmidt made it clear that he expects a firm division, or “bifurcation,” of the internet, calling on the established cyber-segregation that has already been instantiated as evidence alongside several key financial indicators.
“I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America. If you look at China, and I was just there, the scale of the companies that are being built, the services being built, the wealth that is being created is phenomenal. Chinese Internet is a greater percentage of the GDP of China, which is a big number, than the same percentage of the US, which is also a big number. If you think of China as like ‘Oh yeah, they’re good with the Internet,’ you’re missing the point. Globalization means that they get to play too. I think you’re going to see fantastic leadership in products and services from China. There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc.”
Many would agree with Schmidt, and perhaps go a bit further to suggest that the bifurcation has already taken place.
As Bloomberg reports, the Chinese internet is subject to extreme censorship. Many apps are banned outright — including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — and the Chinese cognates such as WeChat are surveilled by government sources, The Verge details. Even deleted chat histories can be dug up by law enforcement officials in China to be used against potential suspects, lending a frightening lack of privacy options to users who are essentially railroaded into using said scrutinized apps for their daily communications.
The Verge recently reported that Chinese authorities have banned the Twitch app as well after the program saw a surge of popularity. Twitch provides streaming video options, primarily centered around gaming but also including artistic endeavors, and has a built-in chat client.
The internet shared by the rest of the world — but dominated by American tech titans such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Google — may not be able to escape charges of censorship or silencing of speech either. As USA Today reports, controversial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was denied service indefinitely by PayPal today, after he was removed from YouTube, Twitter, iTunes, Spotify, and Facebook.
Trump says he thinks Google, Facebook and Twitter treat conservatives “very unfairly.”
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) August 29, 2018
Conservative citizens have frequently criticized contemporary social media gatekeepers for removing their content or shadow banning them entirely, with one action group filing a class-action lawsuit on the matter — according to Fox News Business. President Trump has also weighed in on the matter, frequently taking to Twitter to lambaste the big players in the social media industry for allegedly treating right-wing users “very unfairly.”
Those who have been online since the 1980s and 1990s would quite clearly remember the digital landscape of the time as something closer to the wild west, bereft of embedded advertisements and corporate control. Small FTP servers, telnet servers, and personal websites posted to free hosting services such as GeoCities, Angelfire, and Tripod were the means of communication. Search engine selection was actually a matter of choice — with Yahoo!, Lycos, AltaVista, AskJeeves, and Webcrawler all predating Google search by a few years and each providing a distinct aesthetic and algorithm.
Those days are long gone, according to guest writer Kjell Lindstrom, writing for the Stockholm School of Economics. Though not as overtly controlled and mediated as the contemporary Chinese internet, our own internet experiences have been greatly constrained and restricted in the interim, despite the dazzling array of consumer choices and technological improvements to infrastructure and content.