Tim Wu’s articles and publications are always worth reading: a professor at Columbia Law School, a lawyer, an expert in technology and its effects, and the creator, among other things, of the term net neutrality. In short, his views are not to be taken lightly.
His article in The New York Times, “A TikTok ban is overdue”, puts forward the same hard line argument I have been commenting for a long time: that as ideal and interesting as the idea of a global Internet may be, not to take any kind of action against China, a country that has instrumentalized the web, is foolish.
This asymmetrical perception of China is shared by many: China has not only shut out foreign companies from its internet and deprived them of access to its huge market, but has also used it as a political weapon, blocking its people’s access to information, monitoring them, and interfering in other countries’ politics. Therefore, to continue arguing that the internet is a universal network that Chinese companies have the right to use to access global markets ignores reality. Why should we continue to give China access to internet markets throughout the world if the country expressly refuses to follow the rules of the open internet?
Wu’s approach may be justified: China’s approach has been one-sided for many years now, and is unjustifiable. Beijing has done more to undermine the goal of a global internet with unique rules and unlimited access to all kinds of resources, followed, less influentially, by countries like Iran, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and recently, Turkey and India. But China has set the pace, the first to really grasp how the global nature of the internet could be subject to the interests of government, and the first to make it completely normal to type in the address of a given page that works perfectly within its borders, and for there to be no content.
Does this mean that more than 20 years after the creation of the Great Firewall by the Chinese government, we need to start excluding its companies? It’s a complex issue, and I am not at all clear about what the effects would be. China’s strategy over the last few decades, as asymmetrical as it’s been, has worked: half the world’s value chains depend on China, they are either born there or pass through there in some way. Many, many of the products we consume in the world are manufactured or assembled there, and more and more are designed there. From Assembled in China to Made in China, and from there, to Engineered in China. Giving up that level of globalization would clearly be detrimental to all companies in the world, especially US ones.
At the same time, any move in that direction evokes a division of the world into blocks, along the lines anticipated by George Orwell in 1984, and would undoubtedly escalate tensions. Excluding China from the international trade map would only be possible if the United States were able to achieve a broad global consensus, one in which some countries would align themselves to Beijing, while others would to try to remain non-aligned.
Tim Wu’s thesis is that, as much as Donald Trump may be the wrong person to be proposing these kinds of measures and that his unilateral approach to dealing TikTok and WeChat is has not helped, it is nevertheless time for the world to wake up, open its eyes, and see China for what it is: a global leader that has flagrantly violated the laws of an open internet. The question is whether we are going to do something about this behavior or continue to ignore it, at our peril.
In the end, the creation of an open and global network like the internet and its evolution into a splinternet will create much greater geopolitical consequences than some thought. And some people still deny that technology sets the global agenda…
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