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Close look: Internet or ‘splinternet’: What's the big story?

3 years ago
President Trump has banned Chinese firms TikTok and WeChat from the US, claiming they represent a threat to economic and national security. It’s the latest in a number of steps that looks set to seal the divide between two separate global internet systems for good. We take a look at what insiders call the ‘bifurcation’ of the world wide web, as the splinternet becomes embedded.

The guiding vision of the internet, that a common network of shared information could unite the world, never quite matched the reality. In fact, two distinct global internet systems have always been in operation. One is dominated by apps and services created in the US. The other sits behind what has been called the ‘Great Firewall of China’. Access to services freely available outside this wall is typically controlled.

So, while US or European shoppers might choose Amazon for their online transactions, their Chinese counterparts shop on Alibaba. Google’s success as a search engine is such, that it’s become a verb in its own right. Google is what you ‘do’, not simply where you go to find information. But in China the search engine of choice is Baidu and Google is excluded from the Chinese internet.

Sensing a vast untapped market, Google set up the Dragonfly project. Their attempt was to create a search engine acceptable to the Chinese administration. But they discovered that the ideological split between the US and China, covering government, regulation and privacy, goes too deep. The difficulties proved insurmountable, and the Dragonfly project was abandoned in the summer
of 2019.

So which side drives the development of the internet from here? The US is still ahead in some areas of research, but China is leading in 5G and ‘the internet of things’. Combining the expertise of these tech superpowers seems unlikely under President Trump. Indeed, recent sanctions on Huawei aim to exclude the telecoms giant from future 5G technology. Perhaps a new US leader could bring closer co-operation or even heal the rift in the world wide web.

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