Navigating the ‘Splinternet’ in the next cold war


The next big, global showdown is happening right now, and it’s taking place on the internet. The CNBC article from February 3, 2019 outlines how the U.S.A. and China have become the online superpowers and are dividing the world wide web into the ‘splinternet.’ In fact, the two sides often mirror each other. The U.S. has Amazon, China has Alibaba. The U.S. has Google, China has Baidu.

The article is written from an interview with Kaifu Lee, the CEO of a China-based venture capital firm. Lee has particular insight because of his previous role as head of Google in China. Lee says both countries can claim victory in various aspects of the internet, but that looking ahead in five years the split in influence will be fifty-fifty. This particular article addressed a possible division of access and innovation, but later focused on the development of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Lee says that the U.S. and China are the undisputed leaders in AI development, but that China will eventually take the lead. “It’s (China) arguably ahead of U.S. in some areas behind in others, maybe neck and neck. But at the current trajectory, China will probably be ahead of U.S. in five years,” Lee said.

Considering the main source of this article is a Chinese business leader, you have to ask if an interview with an American tech giant would read the same. While Lee credits the U.S. with being a leader in the past, his conclusion that China will leap forward with innovation has to be viewed through the lens of someone who has a vested interest in China winning the war of the splinternet. We also know that free speech is not a guarantee in China as it is in the U.S., so there may be some pressure to propagandize his conclusions regarding the strides his country is making online.

So what does this mean? It means the World Wide Web may be a misnomer, in that the internet won’t be so global anymore. In the twitter video, Lee says websites and apps produced by the Chinese won’t be able to talk to U.S. technology or users, and vice versa. It means the possible weaponization of information, as advances in technology become the new warheads of destruction. It means a lessening chance for global solutions to global problems if the two superpowers turn the internet into a competition.

This article paints a grim picture of the internet’s future, and while we’ve looked at the potential bias of the source, Lee is backed by facts. A Wall Street Journal article published on February 9, 2019 interviewed Tom Pellman, a director for an international risk advisory firm who spent a decade in Beijing. While Pellman is quoted as saying he hated the censorship behind the so-called Great Firewall in China, “When I came back to the U.S. it was like coming back to the Stone Age,” he said. “Not being able to use WeChat (an app that can do multiple tasks), everything felt just old fashioned.”