World <> Flat

by Dave Michels

For most of my life, I’ve been hearing about (and actually witnessing) the world getting smaller. Smaller, flatter, whatever the term. The basic idea is that we are now more interconnected and more global than ever before, but the trend is reversing. 

On a trip to South Africa a few years ago, I realized just how small the world had become. I booked a great hotel without a travel agent. I never exchanged any cash, and instead confidently relied on my credit and ATM cards. I was able to easily navigate local transportation using Uber. I didn’t set an out-of-office responder on my email, because I was connected to mail, calls, and social networks during the whole trip.  

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century is an international best-selling book by Thomas L. Friedman that analyzes globalization. The title is a metaphor for viewing the world as a level playing field in terms of commerce. The title also alludes to the perceptual shift required for countries, companies, and individuals to remain competitive in a global market in which historical and geographic divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

I write this post while in China, and I’ve revised my conclusion. The Wi-Fi in my hotel had never heard of Google, Facebook, or Twitter. Uber worked on my phone, but the service was not available. I had to hand the taxi driver my printed destination and then pay with Chinese cash. Fortunately, my smartphone did work normally. Since I was roaming, my service provider wasn’t in China.

Missing Google was tougher than I expected. I used Baidu a bit, but the problem went beyond search. I use Google for email, chat, and content storage. None of those worked.

Yes, it’s easy to point to the Great Firewall of China as an extreme example, but it’s just a preview of the future normal. The giant, unrestricted internet is going to go away. It will be normal, even expected, that countries, providers, companies, even households will limit internet access. 

I was not alone in seeing the internet as the great leveler. The Internet Protocol (IP) is inherently borderless, but that’s not the way networks get built. As VoIP professionals know, the PSTN is tightly and monopolistically regulated, and VoIP is contained by political borders. Even Skype, the first major universal communications app, has been limited. Skype’s SkypeOut service was just recently ruled to be a regulated national service. 

Borders are containing our networks in many ways. More and more countries are implementing strict data sovereignty rules. Netflix limits what I can watch based on my location, yet the price of the service ignores my travels. 

It’s not just about network restrictions; it’s also about apps. I thought cash was universal, but it’s not. Payment apps  are fragmenting the internet in unexpected ways. I tried to buy a sandwich in China, but the vendor only accepted WeChat. Sweden’s near cashless society runs on the Swish payment app, great for them but inconvenient for tourists. Not even credit cards are as universal as they were. A kiosk rejected my card because I didn’t have the chip-and-pin version. 

The US President wants to build a physical wall along its southern border, and presumably the northern border after that. The UK wants to exit the European Union. The protests  in Hong Kong are about independence. There’s no shortage of other examples. Nationalistic trends are occurring globally. 

It wasn’t long ago that the world was getting smaller. They even created a Disney ride in this spirit. Miss America contestants seemed to agree on world peace as the best wish. Those were the days. Future contestants will want prosperity for all Americans.  

Fragmenting the internet isn’t really new. It’s common for enterprises to restrict sites and supplement with their own intranets. The Chinese Firewall is an extreme example, but it solves a lot of problems for the Chinese government. It reduces foreign influence, and by restricting services, it stimulates innovation: WeChat instead of Facebook, Alibaba instead of Amazon, and Baidu instead of Google. 

This trend of national versions of the internet will likely expand well beyond China. It will happen in two ways: Governments will limit access to sites deemed unsavory, and appwalls will limit access to information and services. Both are already happening. We already erased network neutrality, so “the Internet” already varies domestically. Appwalls are also common. When they are associated with paid services we call them paywalls, but appwalls can exclude users for any variety of reasons including citizenship, credit income, age, or whatever. 

We may even see two (or more) internets in each country: One for national citizens and one for visitors, similar to how enterprises have a guest Wi-Fi. 

The internet revolution is far from over. It has leveled the playing field in so many ways. But not everyone wants a level playing field, not everyone wants to share, and not everyone wants to borrow. We all know that information is power, so obviously nations will increasingly take active role in managing the internet. Both in terms of restricting content as well as monitoring it (surveillance). Future oversight will make Google and Facebook look like rookies.