The Increasingly Bifurcating Internet

The internet is bifurcating. And it is becoming clear there will be massive ramifications for how global citizens see the world and how companies operate within it.

The last decade was about bringing billions of individuals online. By the end of 2005 there were just over one billion internet users. By 2010, the number had surpassed the 2-billion mark. As we close 2019, the number of global internet users has surpassed four billion, just under 54 percent of the global population. In the early years of this transformation, the focus was on creating an internet that could be accessed in developing countries on developing networks. From Pranav Dixit reporting in Buzzfeed:

“The only times India came up during product discussions was customizing those products on slow and patchy internet networks in developing countries,” said a longtime Google executive who didn’t wish to be named. “What we think of as the ‘internet,’ even 10 years ago, was the American internet, and that is what everybody experienced.”

In recent years, there has been a move to create an internet increasingly customized to its users. As Caesar Sengupta wrote in a Google blog post in 2015:

“Our goal is to bring all Indians online — regardless of income, region, age, gender, or language — and as they come online, we want to make the Internet more relevant and useful for their needs.”

Again from Dixit:

“Over the last few years, Google has made its products available in more than a dozen Indian languages, reworked Android keyboards to work better with Indic language scripts, and even trained its voice assistant to understand Hinglish, a mixture of Hindi and English that millions of Indians use colloquially, which trips up Alexa and Siri regularly.”

The customization and personalization that was so attractive early on has revealed some downside risks as Eli Pariser wrote about in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. As Bill Gates noted in 2017, technologies such as social media, “lets you go off with like-minded people, so you’re not mixing and sharing and understanding other points of view…It’s turned out to be more of a problem than I, or many others, would have expected.” In some ways, algorithms coupled with individuals’ own self-selection have created siloed pools of internet users and driven a type of bifurcation.

Local rules and laws create bifurcation. Europe’s right to be forgotten creates separate internets. China has long maintained state control over the internet there, while Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries in the Middle East exert similar influence. Turkey’s two-year block of Wikipedia was just ruled unconstitutional by the Turkish Supreme Court. The court voted 10-6 in favor of Wikipedia so the mistake of the ban wasn’t as obvious as we might hope. And Russia has begun testing a national internet system that could enable the country to operate its own alternative sovereign internet.

Governments have obviously realized the power of a connected populous. Many watched the Arab Spring redefine nations in early 2010s. Today, nations like India and Hong Kong frequently turn off the internet in times of public uprising. And as governments turn off the internet to quell protests, users are turning to offline messaging solutions like Bridgefy and FirecChat which use the Bluetooth connectivity of mobile devices to create peer-to-peer mesh networks so that individuals can continue to communicate and coordinate even when communication networks are down. A bifurcating internet that is increasingly state-controlled will lead to greater offline communication and information dissemination, even if it is digital.

Companies also see the inevitability of a splintering internet. Google was widely criticized when it was revealed it was secretly working on a censored search engine project dubbed “Project Dragonfly.” Apple recently took heat for complying with Russia’s demand to show the annexed Crimean peninsula as Russian territory inside of Apple Maps and its Weather app, when viewed inside of Russia.

A bifurcating internet could mean smaller addressable markets for digital products and services. It likely means that local alternatives have longer runways. Most countries want to develop a domestic innovation agenda. A more state-controlled internet likely translates into support for domestic companies. This has long been true in China. Just this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that China’s Huawei received as much as $75 billion in tax breaks, financing, and create resources. A bifurcating internet will likely result in similar dynamics, though perhaps somewhat less pronounced, in more countries. It is a net negative for U.S. tech companies.