Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, has said that he believes the internet will split in two in the next decade. Speaking at a private event hosted by Silicon Valley investment firm Village Global VC, he warned that at the heart of this split would be China and the U.S., with two different ‘internets’ taking shape.
Asked a question about the possible fragmentation of the internet, Schmidt said “I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.”
For Schmidt, what’s distinctive about the ‘Chinese internet’ is the amount of wealth that’s invested into it, and how it plays a part in the Chinese Government’s wider economic strategy. He cites the fact that the Chinese internet is an even larger proportion of GDP than the U.S. internet as evidence of the importance its playing within China’s wider economic – and maybe political – plans.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative
Schmidt also mentions China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the context of the internet. The Belt and Road Initiative is essentially China’s attempt to increase its economic growth by building better relationships and links with countries all around the world, particularly in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Precisely because so much trade happens digitally, the internet is necessarily a crucial component of the initiative. The implications of this, according to Schmidt at least, are that we may begin to see some of the more closed and controlled aspects of the internet in China replicated around the world.
The differences between the Chinese internet and the U.S. one have been playing out in some recent controversies – such as Google’s own Project Dragonfly, a search engine that is censored in a way that’s amenable to the Chinese authorities.
However, while the U.S v. China narrative offers an easily digestible view of digital geopolitics, it would be wrong to ignore the attitudes of lawmakers in other parts of the world – like Europe – that are going to shape the future of the internet.