Could the US and China really split up the internet?

US China internet
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ITEM: Former Google chief Eric Schmidt believes that within the next ten years, the internet as we know it will be bifurcated into two sections: one run by China, and the other by the US.

Speaking at a private event last week, Schmidt commented that the scale and growth of China’s internet industry – combined with China’s overall growth as an economic superpower – may ultimately result in a “bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America”, reports CNBC:

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.

Look at the way BRI works – their Belt and Road Initiative, which involves 60-ish countries – it’s perfectly possible those countries will begin to take on the infrastructure that China has with some loss of freedom.”

The idea of a split internet isn’t new – China has been pushing that idea since at least 2006 under the guise of “internet sovereignty”. President Xi Jinping raised the issue again at last year’s World Internet Conference, now calling it “cyber sovereignty”. Either way, it’s essentially the same concept: China wants the current multi-stakeholder model of global internet governance (currently overseen by ICANN) to be replaced with a sovereign model under which governments have the freedom to run and manage their own internet.

It also came up six years ago at WCIT 2012 in Dubai, when one of the topics of discussion was whether ICANN should continue to govern the internet or whether the ITU should take over. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan and the UAE reportedly proposed adopting the sovereignty model – and while they eventually withdrew it, it could be placed back on the table at future meetings, which China seems likely to do.

Hard sell

So … could Schmidt’s prediction actually come to pass?

The obvious answer is: look, technically anything is possible when it comes to governments making bad decisions. But ten years is a long time in a world where ICT evolution is accelerating and disruption is everywhere.

For example, Schmidt’s prediction seems to hinge on China’s BRI success. But Bloomberg reports the initiative may be stalling in countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and Myanmar. Meanwhile, Huawei’s grand efforts to dominate the 5G equipment landscape is now worrying the US, Australia and the UK (and possibly Japan and India). Their national security fears may be unjustified, but facts tend not to matter too much in politics (or national security).

Also, according to this article from Scott Shackleford, the cyber sovereignty model isn’t in the spirit of the UN’s sustainable development goals, which explicitly define internet access as a human right and call for “universal and affordable access to the Internet by 2020”, as well as the freedom to access basic online information and services.

One of the key selling points of the SDGs – and universal broadband – is greater economic productivity and inclusion. Which means if China really wanted to impose cyber sovereignty as a condition of BRI investments, it would have to convince its partners that they won’t be sacrificing the economic benefits of an open and universally available global internet.

It takes two to bifurcate

Granted, the ideal of internet freedom is losing its shine even among western governments alarmed at how social media platforms are being manipulated to spread fake news and extremism to the point of interfering with democratic processes and (in some countries) literally getting people killed.

Still, there’s a difference between regulating harmful content (which most countries already do for things like online child pornography, for example) and managing a national internet at the level of what ICANN does – something that many countries don’t want to do, and even if they did, they don’t have the ability or resources.

China has in some respects already created its own sovereign internet via the Great Firewall – and according to the Shackleford article above, the cyber security law China passed last year was designed to essentially operationalize the sovereignty model.

But that’s still basically China’s internal internet policy, not an ICANN alternative that other nations could elect to join. And again, it’s not clear to me why anyone would find China’s tightly controlled internet the better option of the two.

However, while I was typing this, US President Trump just told the UN that “we reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Which gets me to thinking that it’s not hard to imagine Trump supporting cyber sovereignty, if only because it plays to both his “America First” ideology and his paranoia over Google, Twitter and Facebook allegedly suppressing positive news stories about him (to say nothing of the fact that his administration apparently has no idea how the internet works).

So if the internet does split in two, perhaps it will be the US driving the wedge – in which case China would be all too happy to play along.

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