30 Days of Blog

The Internet will be Balkanized[30 days of Blog 26]

This post is part of my 30 blogs in 30 days series. More details here.

Eventually the open web will be killed and the internet will transform into hundreds of national and thousands of regional networks. The governments of the world wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the beginning

Before the internet, information was not free. Governments and Media institutions had propreity over what information could propagate. If there was information that was widely available beyond your national borders, you could:

  • Wait for someone to license it for release in your country, and
  • Pray that local censors allow it for public consumption, or
  • Travel to the other country.

The video tape, and the sattelite/cable TV explosion created a wave of pirated material avaialble for many a connoseur, but for the most part, information was not free. Then the internet happened. The internet not only freed information but also made it ‘free’; zero cost. While this has bothered the IP Industry Complex for decades, they weren’t able to do much about it. They have waged a war via extensive litigation, but to limited success; the web is still open. Because besides provide ample supply of Lost episodes and anime fansubs, the web also powered critical communications infratructure. Tiny infractions, like IP infringement could be tolerated. Besides, it’s not like that many people were online. Any subversive behavior could easily be managed. Governments payed it no mind.

Then smartphones happened. Internet connectivity, and hence subversion, began to spread. Governments can’t ignore it anymore. They have to control it. Lucky for them they already have a model on how to do that.

The Great Firewall

When western media and commentators talk about the ‘menace’ of People’s Republic of China they either invoke the racist ‘yellow peril’ narrative or slightly-less racist faceless evil narrative. Both are simplistic. They fail to take into account the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative; Only liberalism or Marxism can survive in the coming world order. They see their control of information as a matter of survival. Which brings us to the Great Firewall.

Chinese Communist Party blocks foreign social meda; no Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat. CCP also strongly regulates search engine results. Many foreign news sources are blocked both on the web and on the Apple App Store(Google left China in 2010, so no Play Store either). During the earliest days of this regime, many foreign commentators predicted that the CCP will see the light. They had a fallacious view of history. This has actually created a separate internet economy in China, with its own BigTech Giants like Baidu, AliBaba, and Tencent. This has also created the world’s biggest tech startup, ByteDance, estimated to be valued at $75 Billion. The Great Firewall has deprived the Chinese public from information, but has created a robust infrastructure for local startups. China has shown that not only can you create a balkanized version of the web, but it can thrive.

It is the controversy around ByteDance main product, TikTok, that compelled me to write this post.

The Stifling of TikTok

In May 2020, a series of border skirmishes atarted between India and China in their disputed border area. This all came to a head on June 15th 2020, when during a skirmish 20 Indian soldiers died and 43(unconfirmed) causualties on the Chinese side. While both countries have made commitments to resolve the situation diplomatically, this skirmish has put the Indian government in a political connundrum.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, came to power projecting strong nationalist image. He is prone to fits of bravado, using India’s large GDP numbers as manifestation of the Hindu Nationalist destiny to rule the world. India has decided to ban 28 Chinese apps and sites to operate in India. Including TikTok. While India’s economic power, or lack thereof, is a whole separate debate, it is clear that this was a blow to ByteDance; India is TikTok’s biggest market.

In the wake of this, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that US is also considering banning TikTok over National Security concerns. The US is the scond biggest market. Some analyst hand-wave TikTok’s data collection practices as no more invasive than US-based Facebooks’s. Analysts have also tracked the data-collection location to within Singapore and US. However, TikTok’s privacy policy clearly states:

We may share your information with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group.

So there is legitimate reason for the US to be concerned regarding National Security and Chinese social media services. But what can be said of TikTok, can also be said of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

Mere Pretense

You might be wondering how any other Nation State can justify allowing Google and Facebook to operate if data privacy is indeed a National Security concern? This is going to be ongoing discussion in halls of power in the coming years. If the US indeed bans TikTok than it will be a matter of time that EU, UK, Canada, and other US allies ban it as well. During legislative discussion on this, someone will probably bring up CIA’s PRISM program. This will get the ball rolling. Russia will probably the first ban foreign social media sites.

EU will probably not ban them outright, but will probably tax them to make them less competitive. The excuse would be to promote local statrups. India will do the same. It already does have trade barriers against foreign ecommerce firms, so this wouldn’t be a stretch. Of course, all of these are mere pretense. The rapid growth of the Internet has left governments hapless to take back control. China’s example provides them ample reason to believe that they can put this jinn back in the bottle and control it. Which is the ultimate goal of all of this.

The Future

There will be no internet. There will be independent national networks, that will work according to local rules. Some might even require visa for foreigners to access. While the open internet has been the norm for over two decades, the ruling elites of most countries have not changed, or are cut from the same cloth as there predecessors. Open exchange of ideas and information are a threat to their authority and hegemony. The future is bleak.

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