Last week, during a private tech event, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Alphabet, predicted the definitive split of the internet into an American-led and a Chinese-led version. While there’s never a been a single unified internet to begin with, as different companies and governments have control over regional branches of the web (sometimes referred to as “the Splinternet”), Schmidt foresees a definitive divide between two clearly distinct internets with very limited access to each other’s services, data sources and ideologies.
What does this mean?
Today, we are already used to the idea of a divided internet. The Western cybersphere is dominated by U.S. companies, while the Chinese have their own tech companies and strive for “internet sovereignty” through tight government control. In Schmidt’s view, this chasm will only expand, until no interlinkages exist anymore and, more importantly perhaps, the Chinese web will come to include other Asian, and African, nations as well. Schmidt actually draws a parallel with China’s Belt and Road ambitions; in search of foreign investment and valuable services, those nations are likely to welcome the Chinese version of the web, including its tech companies and, possibly, its governance model.
As Schmidt noted, China is already showing leadership in internet products and services, and will further advance in this domain. Meanwhile, Schmidt has not mentioned – or seems to ignore – the rise of a third model: decentralized services based on blockchain technology could re-create the internet by reviving the old dream of the internet as a decentrally organized space.