Internet Internationalization

National and commercial forces at work around the globe cause the Internet to look and function differently depending on where you live. So does it still make sense to refer to it as the Internet?

By Tim Wu

Summer 2009

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In 2004, the Web world snickered when George Bush said, “I hear there’s rumors on the, uh, ‘Internets’ that we’re going to have a draft.” It’s the Internet, not a bunch of “internets,” right? Well, maybe. We may soon remember the days when we thought of “the Internet” as a single, truly global network, at the head of a globalization that seemed inevitable in the 1990s. Instead, as Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and I discuss in our 2006 book, Who Controls the Internet?, in its place is the growing reality of national networks—Chinese, American, French, and Russian networks—still called the Internet, and fairly similar, but whose actual connections are occasional and fleeting and whose differences outnumber similarities.

As in many things, China, separated by language, politics, and culture, is driving Internet balkanization. As recently as 2005, columnist Nicolas Kristoff went to Beijing and declared that the arrival of the American Internet was ending Communist rule. “The Chinese leadership,” he said, “is digging the Communist Party’s grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband.” But the Chinese government remains firmly in charge, and the Chinese Internet is doing more to help government than hurt it. In 2008, as Tibet use[d] the Olympics to agitate for independence, the Party use[d] the Internet to help organize anti-Tibet rallies. China has given the Internet the role in building nationalism that radio had in 1930s Europe. Kristoff’s mistake was to think that the Internet would change China, instead of vice versa.

Other differences abound. In Japan, the Internet is already primarily a network that serves mobile phones instead of computers. In the United States, cable and phone companies have been eager to push the Internet closer to the business models that work on television,
prompting the “net neutrality” debate. South Korea blocks North Korean sites, nations in the Middle East strive to filter blasphemy, and states like Thailand or Turkey insist on blocking speech critical of national figures like the king or Ataturk.

Hulu.com launched in March 2008 as a joint venture of NBC and News Corporation. Hulu is something of old media’s answer to YouTube, offering hundreds of popular shows, like Battlestar Galactica, for streaming download. But if you happen to live in Europe, Asia, or Africa, you’ll notice something: Hulu doesn’t work. Hulu uses “geo-filtering”—it notices where users come from and blocks anyone who isn’t coming from the United States. The reason, presumably, is to protect the TV distribution channels that NBC and Fox use outside the United States. It’s a good example of how business realities can create an Internet that looks different in different parts of the world.

Language is doing as much as law or business. In 1996, the New York Times published an article titled “World, Wide, Web: Three English Words,” which said that if you “want to take full advantage of the Internet there is only one real way to do it: learn English.” That was then, when about 80 percent of online information was in English. Today, things have changed, and a majority of the world’s Web sites are no longer in English. And increasingly, the ability to type something like 吳修銘 . 中国 may be the key to reaching foreign sites.

The history of radio may foretell the future of the Internet. Radio broadcasting was born in America in 1921 as a private, unpredictable, and unregulated medium. But after a decade radio had balkanized into very different forms around the world. In Britain, radio came under the control of a government corporation, the BBC, with the mission of enlightening the masses, whether they liked it or not. Here in the United States, radio was taken over by big business, and its nature dominated by advertisers and the network model pioneered by AT&T and NBC. In Nazi Germany, radio was retooled into what Joseph Goebbels called the “spiritual weapon of the totalitarian state” and a “towering herald of National Socialism.” The Nazi state even distributed radios designed to receive only German signals and forced everyone to listen to political broadcasts during “national moments.”

Similar pressures face the Internet today as governments and commerce seek to shape the media of our time into a reflection of their power and culture. Whether this is a good or bad thing can be hard to say. Why shouldn’t Russians have an Internet that speaks their language? And if the Germans, through their elected officials, want to block neo-Nazi sites, why is that wrong? In many ways an Internet that maps more to national differences may be both inevitable and helpful. But the question is whether, in the course of balkanization, something will be lost. For the past twenty years, the Net has succeeded in its original vision of an uncontrolled, unpredictable, and uncensored medium. Whether it can adapt to different nations and retain its vitality is the question for the next decade.

This essay was reprinted from the recently published Sesquicentennial Essays of the Faculty of Columbia Law School. © 2008 Tim Wu

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Illustration by Otto Steininger