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STATE OF PLAY

Techno-nationalism is shaping the future of your internet

JULIA DUFOSSÉ FOR QUARTZ
Published Last updated

In September 1987, a laboratory in China sent an email to a German university—the first-ever email the world received from the Communist country. It read: “Across the Great Wall, we can reach every corner of the world.”

That same month, 33 years later, two Chinese-developed apps, WeChat and TikTok, faced the prospect of being shut out of the US, as the White House threatened to issue the country’s first ban on foreign platforms. Also this year, India banned Chinese apps and is mulling a national alternative to the Google and Apple app stores, while Facebook warned Europe that its onerous data privacy rules could prompt the social network to withdraw from the region.

We’re a long way from the early ambition and optimism of a truly global and open internet.

Before the internet came along, what we could read, watch, and learn was shaped by publishers in our region, state and private broadcasters, and the newspapers available in our area. Then with a high-pitched series of beeps and static, text-only dial-up internet promised us a world where we could more or less get the same kind of information as someone on the other side of the planet—or from them.

For many people across the world, the internet delivered—and still does—on that promise. Yet it’s become increasingly clear we don’t have the ideal version of a singular internet that early enthusiasts might have hoped for.

Those who are online are divided by bandwidth disparities—police brutality at a protest in Hong Kong will be far better documented than at one in Baghdad, while the coronavirus pandemic reminds us daily that a simple video call can still be a frustrating exercise for a worker in India or Nigeria. Hundreds of millions of people aren’t online, or can’t access websites in their own language, at all.

With the arrival of the monopolistic era of the internet, and rules increasingly set by giant companies, users dispersed among platforms based on political leanings, age, and hobbies, often growing more separate from their fellow citizens, even while using the same sites. In China, some e-commerce platforms have gone as far as disabling shopping links from rival sites to keep users close. As they grew, commercial platforms often seemed unable or unwilling to contend with the social harm they could cause.

The most divisive development, without doubt, has been China’s Great Firewall, created to disable the internet’s potential threat to the Communist Party by blocking its citizens from easy access to other sources of information, and from speaking freely with one another. “The departure of Google from China [in 2010] marked the complete disconnection between Chinese users and the international web,” said Zeng Jiajun, a former product manager for content moderation at ByteDance. “The lives of users in China do not rely on any non-Chinese internet company these days.”

As China’s firewall rose, internet advocates warned of the coming “splinternet,” where access to services and information online is determined by where you live, and the government you live under (not unlike our pre-internet past). China’s philosophy of cyber-sovereignty has become extremely influential, as other governments take to the idea that every place should regulate the internet in its national interest, however the people in power define that.

The developments of 2020, experts say, show the world entering a new, more intense era of fragmentation, driven largely by a kind of techno-nationalism. This is exemplified by US president Donald Trump’s efforts to broker a sale of TikTok from ByteDance to US software giant Oracle on national security grounds.

“The original promise of the internet was one of liberation, right? A technology that would set people free and allow for exchange of ideas, creativity, products and services, and so on,” says Guillermo Beltrà, head of digital policy at the Brussels-based Open Society European Policy Institute. “What we see… is that ideal is every day more distant,” he says. “Power gets increasingly accumulated in the hands of a wealthy few platforms on the one hand, but also [as] more and more authoritarian governments use that technology against their own people.”

At the same time, countries are pushing back at Silicon’s Valley’s influence, especially in the wake of revelations in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the US had been spying on Americans and foreigners alike using internet customer data. “[M]any around the world came to believe that the ‘free and open’ internet seemed to advantage US security and economic interests. And so states began reasserting control,” says Adam Segal, director of the digital program at the Center on Foreign Relations in New York.

What will that mean for users?

Quartz asked executives, researchers, and policy advisers to help us imagine the experiences of internet users across the world five years from now, based on the present-day battles between tech giants, politicians, and internet freedom fighters that are directly shaping our online future. In each section below, you’ll read an illustration of a hypothetical news event taking place in 2025, as a way of unpacking the current stakes—from the fallout of an anxious US contending with China’s rising tech stature, to the impact of millions more coming online from in Africa, and more.

Let’s begin with the unraveling of the world’s most fruitful tech relationship.

Table of contents

The US-China tech divorce | A safe space for European data | Africa, online yet shut out | India’s super app aspirations | The future of fragmentation

The US-China tech divorce

The fight over who should control TikTok in the US is a sign of just how thorny US-China relations are becoming. The tussle over the hugely popular short-video streaming platform—China’s first global app—is also a reminder of just how deeply entwined the US-China technology realms are, a relationship that has shaped the internet around the world.

Scores of unicorns have grown thanks to venture capital firms with one foot in San Francisco and the other in Shanghai. The relationship has given millions of consumers all over the world cheap smartphones to connect to the internet. Developers and entrepreneurs moved seamlessly between Chinese and US tech firms, like Eric Yuan, the founder of Zoom, who worked in Beijing before he moved to Silicon Valley in 1997, inspired by a speech by Bill Gates.

But all that is changing as the Trump administration’s trade war with China has increasingly focused on technology. After putting telecom equipment giant Huawei on a trade blacklist last year, and then curbing its ability to source semiconductor chips made using US technology, the US turned its attention to consumer tech, ordering the Chinese owners of Grindr to divest from the app, and threatening to ban TikTok and WeChat. China for its part, tanked an outright sale of TikTok to a US company by adding algorithms to a restricted list of tech exports, and is working on its own black list of “unreliable entities.”

While these moves are ostensibly driven by national security concerns, a legitimate worry given Beijing’s expectations of nation-building by its tech firms, there’s more at play. Chinese companies are starting to threaten the dominance of their US rivals and mentors in both cutting-edge areas like AI and consumer-facing apps. “It is the first time that Americans are threatened with a viable [social media] alternative that is non-US,” said Carwyn Morris, a post-doctoral researcher at the UK’s University of Manchester who focuses on online authoritarianism and resistance.

What’s a novel experience for the US is actually one of the hallmarks of the internet experience for most people—using services developed in and for another country. The challenge for the US is to regulate the possible threats, but unlike China, in a democratic way. One way to think about that is the difference between content moderation based on transparency and in the public interest, and censorship, which is opaque and done to retain control, says Morris.

If the US just shuts out these technologies from elsewhere, Americans stand to lose out on experiencing a more global internet. Innovations coming out of China, where the internet for most people has always been on phones, often develop more quickly or on a different trajectory than in the US. For example, the US has only recently started to embrace Quick Response (QR) codes to trace cases of Covid-19. China has been using them for contactless payments for years.

How contentious things get depends on whether Trump is re-elected next month, or loses to Democrat rival Joe Biden. “Should Trump somehow win the election, I could see a continuation of blocking or banning non-US apps—particularly Chinese, but Indians and others as well,” said William Plummer, who’s especially familiar with US-China techno-nationalism from his stint as Huawei’s top public relations executive in the US until 2018.

Silicon Valley giants, many of which have been shut out of the China market by Beijing, would likely put their “chips in with the US government to try to get policy benefits,” said Rui Zhong, who focuses on US-China relations at the Wilson Center in Washington. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who used to make numerous trips to China, has urged western democracies to design a data privacy framework to counter China’s influence.

If the US campaign against Huawei causes serious damage, China could look to retaliate by putting US firms on its blacklist, or by calling upon “patriotic shopping” by Chinese consumers to boycott US firms like Apple. (That would hurt: Apple earned around $44 billion from China last year.)

Internet users outside the US and China will suffer too. Already, Google services are unavailable on Huawei phones released after May 16 last year, because of its blacklisting. While that may not affect phone buyers in the US, where Huawei phones aren’t available, or in China, where users don’t use the Google app suite, it’s a different matter for phone buyers in Spain, Italy, or Kenya.

William Bao Bean, Shanghai-based general partner for venture capital firm SOSV, suggests tech investment could become siloed, and focused on large internet markets. “You’ll end up having ‘bubbles’ like the travel bubbles for Covid-19. Business is going to see the same challenge,” he said. “There will be commercial and legal bubbles, crossing between them will be difficult…if you are in a tiny bubble, you are screwed.”

One possible outcome is that no company is able to sell products that meet regulations on both sides of the Pacific. “There is no technology that would allow the Chinese government to surveil mainland participants, while also preserving encryption for foreign users,” said Daniel Sinclair, an independent social media researcher.

That likely means, as high as the Great Firewall is now, there’s always room for it to grow higher.

We also imagine the US deterring those US tech companies that continue to engage with China, such as Microsoft, as reported by our fictional Chinese paper, the Global Journal. The company’s LinkedIn and GitHub platforms can currently be used in the country.

China hasn’t blocked Github, because of its value to software developers, even though some of the projects that originate on the code-repository site in China have become a way to voice complaints or resist censorship. The project Terminus 2049, for example, preserved news stories and articles censored from Chinese apps. This April, after the project helped preserve an article about how Chinese authorities suppressed doctors from sharing information about the coronavirus, police arrested several of the volunteers who worked on it.

In a future where even sites like GitHub might no longer be accessible in China, it’s hard to imagine where an idea like Terminus 2049 would find a home—though Chen Kun, the brother of Chen Mei, one of the arrested volunteers, suggests that people will find a way.

“My brother and I believe that transparency and openness of information in any country is very important because China has a serious network blockade,” Chen Kun told Quartz. “No matter what method we use, we hope to help others obtain more transparent and diverse information.”

A safe space for European data

In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented an existential challenge for the European Union. Borders across the bloc closed in early March and administrative life ground to a halt, resulting in a massive recession. Institutions like courts and social care departments accumulated lengthy backlogs. Ten months in, it’s still not clear when “normal” life will resume.

But in 2025, we may look back and see that the pandemic also created a historic opportunity for Europe to forge a bloc that’s more unified digitally. With offline activities hammered by lockdowns and travel restrictions, the EU saw momentum grow around digitizing public services, often with the help of European tech platforms. Courts in Ireland, for example, have held virtual hearings using Oslo-based video-conferencing provider Pexip, while French courts required the use of French platform Tixeo.

This online push is generating political support from member states for the idea that Europeans need access to a digital identity—a way to digitally prove that they are who they say they are—to safely access online services. Think of it, the Commission says, as a European single sign-on.

Enter the European Digital Identity Scheme, a proposal presented by the European Commission ahead of this October’s European Council summit. Following a public consultation period and discussions with member states, the idea will be refined and incorporated into plans for a Digital Services Act, a package of significant reforms in Internet regulations coming this year.

The European Digital Identity Scheme envisions the creation of a voluntary, pan-European method for electronically identifying people, called e-ID, and tying other components of their identity—their credentials for example—to it so that they may seamlessly access digital services.

Consider this scenario: An Italian citizen moves to Portugal for work and needs to open a bank account. He would typically need to visit the bank in person, and face demands for mountains of paperwork that he might not have yet, such as a lease in his name. With an e-ID, he could grant the bank remote access to his digitized Portuguese financial records, certified by one of the EU’s authorized trust services (like a digital notary that verifies the information.)

European digital identifiers could also mediate people’s experience with private internet services, and impose “a clear separation between the collection of personal identity data and the collection of other data for commercial exploitation,” the Commission said.

That’s an issue that has created a significant divide between Europe and the US. European regulators have argued for years that major tech platforms are too powerful for the public good. And the EU doesn’t trust US companies or the US government to properly handle its citizens’ data—with good reason. In 2013, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of a surveillance program that gave the US access to the private data of users of platforms like Google, Facebook, and Skype, including those in Europe.

The scandal helped strengthen the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to protect European users’ data from government and private company overreach. In order to continue to allow data to flow between the US and the EU while respecting GDPR, the two sides developed a mechanism called the Privacy Shield. But in July 2020, the European Court of Justice invalidated this mechanism, to the consternation of companies like Facebook, which said it might have to curtail its European operations if data transfers to the US were completely suspended.

“The European model is a top down, to some extent command-and-control model of regulating,” explains Lee Bygrave, director of the Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law, “whereas the US model has always been a more laissez-faire bottom-up approach where you allow the market players to make their rules as they go along.”

Big Tech is clearly concerned about Europe’s plans to overhaul internet rules. In a recent editorial for the FT (paywall) on the Digital Services Act, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg wrote: “As the web fragments, Europe faces a fundamental choice: does it design rules to keep the internet open and global; or does it build barriers for the bloc alone?”

Private tech firms may be compelled to accept the digital ID, which could potentially restrict how much data they can collect on users. For example, in order to create an account on Facebook, instead of giving the platform their email address or phone number and their date of birth, a person would use their GDPR-compliant electronic identifier to log in and Facebook could determine that the person is who they say they are and that they are older than 13, the minimum user age. In theory, users could choose privacy settings by category of platform at one go—say for social media—rather than repeatedly.

While more than a dozen EU countries have already developed or are developing digital identity schemes at the national level, in some places regulations limit the role of the private sector in developing solutions for electronic identifiers and trust services, which some experts say is crucial to making this idea succeed. The Commission has also expressed skepticism about some private solutions, noting that options such as Google single sign-on, “offer convenience…at the cost of losing control over disclosed personal data.”

Another challenge will be convincing ordinary people who are already suspicious of government overreach, or concerned about hacking.

In Estonia, which has one of the most advanced e-ID systems in the world, citizens can see exactly who accesses their data through an online portal, and refer concerns to the authorities. Magnus Arm, the director of digital IDs for Estonia’s information system authority, pointed to his recent experience of renewing his children’s membership with a soccer association and later seeing on the portal that the sports group had asked for his address. That’s accepted in Estonia, he says, but it might not be elsewhere.

This nascent initiative has the potential to be transformative for the EU’s roughly 450 million citizens—and our fictional example above imagines its success. But it’s also possible that it could never realize its full potential, because of lack of take-up or not being fully interoperable. Its progress in the next five years will reveal a lot about whether the bloc can back up its digital talk with action.

Technological change can be slow to materialize in Europe, warns Marietje Schaake, international policy director for the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. As a former member of the European Parliament for the Netherlands, Schaake remembers the excitement surrounding initial plans for a digital single market—27 countries with the same access to digital goods and services across the bloc—more than a decade ago.

“One of my colleagues said calm down, because in 10 years, we’ll still be talking about a digital single market,” she recalls. “And I couldn’t believe it because it seemed like we had no time to lose 10 years ago. But to be honest, he was right.”

Africa, online yet shut out

Two trends are on a collision course across several African countries. By 2025, nearly half a billion people will be using mobile internet services in sub-Saharan Africa, while smartphone penetration will increase by nearly 50%.

Yet last year, incidents of internet shutdowns happened more frequently and lasted longer than ever before on the continent. In fact, the tactic became more pervasive as seven of the African countries that shut down internet access in 2019 had either never done so before, or did not do so in the two previous years.

While internet shutdowns in Africa are often implemented under the guise of national security, they are typically aimed more at stifling dissent (as in the case of Ethiopia), slowing down mass protests (as in the case of Sudan), or even drowning out calls for secession (in the case of Cameroon). Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa’s first known digital blackout in 2017 came after Lansana Conté, former president of Guinea, ordered a shutdown following protests calling for his resignation.

But as more Africans come online, it’s likely to become more common for the internet and social media platforms to be used as tools for advocacy. Data from as far back as 2015 already showed that Twitter, with its low bandwidth consumption which is ideal for slower networks, has become a vital platform for raising political awareness across the continent. The latest marker of the trend recently unfolded in Nigeria, where young people are using digital tools and social media platforms, especially Twitter, to organize and drive widespread protests against rampant police brutality.

There is only one way African governments will likely react.

“Looking realistically at the coming five years, we are definitely seeing the shutdown trend as becoming more popular in Africa,” says Melody Patry, director of advocacy at Access Now, an internet access-focused non-profit. Patry points to social media platforms as being responsible for giving a new generation of Africans ways to express and organize themselves with methods that are out of governments’ reach. And as such, internet shutdowns are increasingly seen by governments on the continent as a method to regain control.

With some governments particularly wary of the power of social media for amplifying protests, apps like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are often targeted in isolation. Take Chad, where a record 16-month ban saw access to social media apps blocked amid plans by the country’s president to extend his stay in power.

But these actions come at a cost.

Internet and social media blackouts in Africa resulted in $2.1 billion in economic losses last year alone. A majority of those losses came from Sudan, where 1,560 hours of shuttered internet and social media access came at an economic cost of $1.8 billion. In total, deliberate internet and social media blackouts lasted nearly 8,000 hours across sub-Saharan Africa in 2019.

As more people come online, however, the expected rise in advocacy is likely to result in not just more shutdowns but also the use of advanced censorship techniques. Governments will move “on from shutting down to throttling, geo-targeting and using laws that help them hide behind national security,” says Gbenga Sesan, a digital rights activist. Essentially, Sesan explains rather than national internet shutdowns, governments will specifically look to shutter internet access in certain locations or regions.

As it turns out, there is already evidence of African countries looking to China to import its digital surveillance methods, according to research by US-based think tank Freedom House.

China’s deepened influence across Africa over the past two decades means that countries across the continent are “increasingly becoming dependent on Chinese technology,” says Eric Olander, co-founder of The ChinaAfrica Project. “As a result of the growing dependency that governments and telecom operators are going to have on Chinese technology, there’s no doubt that surveillance is going to be a part of it.” That dependence is seen in the dominance of Chinese companies on the continent: Shenzhen-based Transsion Holdings is Africa’s largest phone maker while network infrastructure providers like Huawei are not just driving the rise of AI surveillance across Africa but also becoming entrenched in shaping Africa’s digital future.

Aside from the expected sophistication in digital surveillance, countries on the continent are also stifling advocacy and dissent online through brazen laws. Over the past two years, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso have all put forward heavy-handed regulation of social media use. “The demand is there from within some countries in Africa to have these kinds of laws—and it’s likely they’re looking to the Chinese model on how to do this,” Olander tells Quartz.

And so by 2025, as more African users are expected to come online thanks to breakthroughs in the economics of smartphone manufacturing and internet access, their internet reality could well consist of questionable laws and penalties to limit online expression and frequent shutdowns of the internet to hobble organizations of protests offline. However, it’s unlikely that governments’ antics will pass without pushback. Our fictional example imagines what that could look like, in the form of a tip sheet to staying online.

“The good thing about more oppression is that it forces citizen response,” Sesan tells Quartz. “Advocacy has improved significantly over the years and what used to be outsourced to activists and civil society has now become a common fight taken up by active citizens—and that’s always a great thing.”

India’s super app aspirations

Until it was banned on June 29, 2020, TikTok had been downloaded 500 million times in India—its largest market outside China. Then, a bloody fistfight erupted between Indian and Chinese troops on their disputed Himalayan border. As a surge of patriotic anger against China swelled, India’s technology ministry banned 59 Chinese apps, ending TikTok’s dream run.

For millions of Indians, TikTok was a liberating, confidence-building experience, allowing people in cities and villages, including from marginalized groups, to gain an avid following even if they weren’t comfortable dashing off tweets in English.

Seeing an opening, several existing Indian players have made a push to occupy the vacuum left by TikTok. One of them, Chingari, quickly went from having 2.5 million downloads to over 10 million, while six-year-old Roposo, also added millions of users. New entrants also include Twitter-backed social network ShareChat, which launched Moj, and video streaming platform MX Player’s TakaTak.

Yet despite the appetite for “Made in India,” it’s quickly become clear that no Indian social media startup has cracked what it takes to be a TikTok. Consumers of would-be TikTok apps complain of glitches and crashes. When they do work, the apps often have badly designed user interfaces that make for a poor user experience. One app, Mitron, has come under fire for having repackaged code from Pakistani TikTok clone TicTic.

Still, many in India harbor the dream of a homegrown success story after having watched China’s trajectory of building national tech champions whose platforms dominate at home. Our fictional example imagines what that could look like, built off the back of an Indian tech sector split from Chinese support and involvement.

“No doubt Chinese companies were ahead in innovation in the field of personalization and recommendation. But this was the result of years of work put in by them,” said Varun Saxena, founder of Bolo Indya, a video app focusing on India’s many regional languages. “The next four to five years will give Indian companies and tech people the same opportunity to experiment, learn, unlearn, and develop the tech needed.”

China, of course, has had the benefit of the training and tech transfer that accompanied being the world’s factory for the last 20 years. Apple began making iPhones there in 2007, and when it launched its app store the following year, it created an avenue for thousands of Chinese developers to experiment with mobile products. Apple’s China chief estimates there are now at least 2 million app developers in the country.

India has often announced plans to become a major tech manufacturing economy, but has been distracted by other policies and competing agendas. And some of its recent internet moves—from the world’s longest shutdown in Kashmir, to blocking the internet during protests in the capital in 2019—suggest to critics it will more easily adopt the darker aspects of China’s internet approach.

Still, there are some sudden winds in India’s favor as the US seeks allies to join a tech bubble that socially distances China, and as companies rebalance their supply chains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The US’s techno-nationalism may also help by ending the US dreams of many developers on H1-B visas and sending them back to India.

TikTok’s departure, though, shouldn’t lead to people trying to duplicate TikTok. Apart from the glitches, the problem with the first crop of contenders this year was that none of them had a truly distinct vision that would offer users something different.

“There’s a fatigue with social platforms,” said Ami Shah, co-founder of Mumbai-based social media marketing firm, IntelliAssist. “Everyone has to innovate. A video-only content is something people are bored of already…it needs social commerce and other arenas with more engagement.”

An e-commerce app designed with a wide swathe of Indians in mind, with entertainment elements built in, as in the imaginary PlayFull, could be one way to do that. The pandemic showed the potential for the growth of e-commerce in India: Online shopping and home delivery soared, as did peer-to-peer commerce, with home chef and bakery businesses popping up during India’s lockdown.

Knowing the pitfalls in India of social media, especially in the backdrop of rising Hindu nationalism and increased hate speech against the country’s Muslim minority, even a utilitarian social app will have to figure out how to handle divisive comments and trolls looking for offense everywhere.

“This is where understanding of cultural issues and sensitivity will come into picture,” said Saxena of Bolo Indya. “No one-size-fits-all policy would work, but a continuous feedback from community, users, response to content, and the possible outcome of any such content going viral on the app needs to be continuously monitored.”

Beyond the features, the apps will also need to take privacy more seriously, as India studies bringing in its own data localization laws. In its bans of Chinese apps, prime minister Narendra Modi’s government alleged they were stealing and transferring user data out of the country.

Developing without Chinese involvement also means losing access to a key source of funding and know-how for start-ups—which makes it more likely a successful app will come out of an existing large firm than a fledgling startup. The most likely candidate is Reliance’s Jio.

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man thanks to his family petrochemical and refining conglomerate Reliance Industries, revolutionized internet access in India with the world’s cheapest data when he launched Reliance Jio four years ago, acquiring 100 million customers in just six months. In April, Facebook bought a $5.7 billion stake in Jio Platforms, the telecom’s parent company, marking the US firm’s biggest overseas investment ever. Four months later Jio welcomed Google as a “strategic investor,” with $4.5 billion.

Speculation is rife that Jio is going to enter the internet service space in a game-changing way. Already it has revamped its internet browser JioPages, available in eight Indian languages, to occupy the space left by the disappearance of a popular Chinese browser as part of the app ban. Or a new Indian super app might come from another legacy conglomerate, Tata, potentially in a partnership with Walmart.

The future of fragmentation

Predicting the future is a bit of a fool’s errand—ask anyone who shared pre-emptive thoughts about 2020, a year that brought us an event so life-altering that it has spun our lives onto a completely different trajectory.

The fictional scenarios we have provided in this state of play are not assertions about what the internet is going to look like in 2025. Rather, they serve as reminders that the internet is shaped not just by ideals and philosophies, but by the daily, often quite mind-numbingly complicated work of individuals. Every day they work towards what they consider to be a perfect vision of the internet. Whether we agree with it or not, knowing the potential consequences of what they are working towards gives us a chance to push back and have some power over the “splinternet.”

You could learn how to use a VPN, or research which one might be safest. You could investigate which apps you have allowed to harvest data on your phone. You could read up on some of the ways digital rights groups are trying to protect your freedom to browse the internet.

We can’t correctly predict the future. But we invite you to explore the risks and opportunities that could emerge from a splinternet—and learn how to stay connected.