In a fragmenting world, will governments choose ruthless Digital Order over Chaotic Digital Freedom?
The American Internet sucks. Does the best alternative is China.
Congratulations! After a grueling campaign, you have been elected president of Discursia, a small nation somewhere in the Global South.
Discursia is peaceful and prosperous compared to its neighbors. But in 2028, how long can that last? Your economy is booming, but a small cadre of elites hoards its spoils. A restive minority group clamors for rights it’s been denied — rights it might take up arms to obtain. And thousands of refugees mass at your borders, driven by the scarcity of a scorched planet.
Your mandate is to preserve democracy and stability, with minimal immiseration.
Outside your office, two trade delegations are waiting. They’re from the two most powerful nations on Earth: the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
The Americans go first. They propose a sweeping trade package, a plank of which is a 10-year commitment to American social networks: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. On these networks, Discursians can assume any identity they want, and post any content they want. (Except female nipples. Those are strictly forbidden.) The American platforms will resist requests from your government to take down content, including posts that could foment violence. Also, the deal prevents you from suing the platforms over content posted on them, even if it leads to something really bad, like a genocide. And yet, freedom of expression, baby! Just look at what it’s done for our country, the Americans say.
Next files in a group of Chinese government officials with a deal of their own. They want to refinance the debt they hold on the highway and ports they’ve already built for you. But first, you have to commit to a 10-year partnership with platforms built by homegrown Chinese tech giants like Tencent and ByteDance. The Chinese networks are a lot like the American ones, with four major differences. The first is: Discursians can’t say anything bad about the Chinese government, like that it might be committing a genocide. The second is: Despite assurances to the contrary, you suspect the Chinese Communist Party will have unfettered access to your citizens’ data. The third is: No aliases. Each account is linked to a national ID number. The fourth: These companies will be much more amenable to taking down anything you ask them to.
Everything in these deals washes out except for the platforms. You want what’s best for Discursia. You also want to get reelected. You’ve got to choose one.
This is an oversimplification, sure. But it is the way the global internet is trending. The rise of cyber sovereignty, the idea that governments should control the internet that their citizens use and the data they generate, proved in its most extreme form in China, heralds a fragmentation of the digital world. Countries are already blocking each other’s social networks as agents of foreign influence, requiring data to be housed on local servers or heading that way, and threatening to cut themselves off from the world’s internet in a pinch. Bipolar spheres of digital influence radiating out from Washington, DC, and Beijing are not only not out of the question -they may be likely.
Move fast and break things. Let people post what they want and may the consequences be damned. Profits over patriotism. For years, these have been the values of the American-led social internet and its masters in Silicon Valley. Defined by lucratively reckless expansion and the total absence of planning, this laissez-faire model now faces, for the very first time, a real competitor. It doesn’t come from Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Josh Hawley–led antitrust, nor from European-style data protection regimes. It is not an adjustment but a different paradigm entirely. Built to the specifications of the CCP, this model operates according to a much different principle: Shut up and leap forward. And to a world shifting from unipolar American leadership to something much less certain, an internet governance that stresses central state control, order, and authority may well be the rational, if terrifying, choice.
Terrifying: Uighurs thrown in vast prison camps for verboten speech on their smartphones. A pro-democracy intellectual suspended from China's version of Twitter on the flimsiest of pretexts. An influencer jailed for singing a lighthearted version of the national anthem. These models aren't morally equivalent -far from it. The Chinese one lends itself directly to mass repression, while the American one leads to mass amplification, with sometimes horrible consequences. But despite that difference, or perhaps because of it, it's the former that's on the rise.
“The Chinese internet governance model is the first real challenge to a free and open internet,” Samm Sacks, a fellow of cybersecurity policy and Chinese digital economy at New America, told me recently. “And as we see Chinese social media platforms gain real market share in countries that aren’t emerging economies, we are confronted head-on with this question.”
That question: Which model will the world adopt -ruthless government control, or chaotic, corporate-approved freedom?
This schism is the future Mark Zuckerberg asked Americans to envision last month in a curious speech in Washington, DC. Anchored to a lectern at Georgetown University, he forecast a great-power competition over the nature of online expression. In one corner were Made-in-the-USA platforms like his own, which, for all their faults, were “inspired by the American tradition” of free speech.
“While we may disagree on exactly where to draw the line on specific issues,” he said, “we at least can disagree. … The fact that we can even have this conversation means that we’re at least debating from some common values. If another nation’s platforms set the rules, our discourse will be defined by a completely different set of values.”
That other nation, of course, is China. And while Zuckerberg didn’t deign to name its values -god help him if he had tried -it’s clear that he was referring to censorship of the kind Chinese social media companies have for years imposed on Chinese citizens at the behest of the CCP.
“Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values,” he said. “There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top 10 are Chinese.”
Critics were quick to point out the self-interestedness and hypocrisy of Zuckerberg’s alarming forecast. For one thing, Facebook only started to use China as a foil recently as calls in Washington for regulation and possible antitrust action against it intensified. (The company’s argument: Chinese tech platforms are so huge and so closely bound to the Chinese government that breaking Facebook up would weaken a key American industry and cede the global market to China, thus weakening the US.) And Zuckerberg is the guy, after all, who was once so eager to crack open the world’s most populous market that he reportedly asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to name his firstborn child. (Xi declined.)
Zuckerberg gave his speech at a time of deep, probably overdue, American concern about Chinese censorship coming home to roost on the wings of Western corporations. The issue burst onto the national stage in early October after the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The furious reaction from the Chinese government and segments of the Chinese public, along with conciliatory statements by NBA players and officials, led to charges from figures across the American political spectrum that the league was placing money before the time-honored American value of free speech.
This was hardly the first example of an American or European company humbling itself to the Chinese government following an incident of freedom of expression. In 2018 alone, Gap apologized for selling a T-shirt in Canada that featured a map of China without Taiwan; Marriott apologized for listing Tibet and Taiwan as countries on a customer survey; Daimler apologized for using a quote from the Dalai Lama in a social media post; and several US airlines acceded to Chinese demands to remove references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau from drop-down menus of countries on their websites. This year, Givenchy, Versace, and Coach lost all-important Chinese celebrity brand ambassadors after releasing T-shirts that listed Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as separate countries. They all apologized. Activision Blizzard not only apologized — it even punished an esports player for expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters; it promised, on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, to “resolutely safeguard the country’s dignity.”
The language on both sides of these flare-ups has been all about pride and disgrace, and who respects whom. Against the background of President Donald Trump’s trade war, the apologetics have played in the American context as humiliations, exposures of the relative cheapness of the American value of free speech in an international marketplace with an irresistibly rich new buyer. (It’s worth noting that maximizing shareholder value is also an American value.) Zuckerberg -who once said Facebook is more like a government than a company -came to Washington, DC, to announce that he had glimpsed a future where such humiliations are the rule and discovered that he runs a very American company after all.
"We are now in a position that we're much more free to stand up for what we believe in than the other companies," he reiterated in a conference call Wednesday.
To be clear: Facebook’s vision of free speech is flawed, extravagantly so. But putting aside the opportunism of Zuckerberg’s argument for a moment, which he made only after Facebook failed to enter the Chinese market and regulators began knocking on his door, his point about the vulnerability of the American model of free speech around the world is correct.
Post–Cold War narratives about the inevitable triumph of open societies and American mass culture have run aground. Authoritarian regimes that shutter universities and arrest journalists have prospered. China has become the world's second-largest economy through economic liberalization without democratic reform.
Meanwhile, the chaotically open and user-hungry communications platforms we have created and exported have inherent, obvious weaknesses: They are vulnerable to meddling, conducive to demagoguery, and damaging to social trust. They mishandle Americans’ data and broadcast the US’s profound divisions throughout the world. And they now have a competitor that takes the flow of information very, very seriously.
In 2013, shortly after he took power, Xi addressed the CCP’s top leadership behind closed doors. This summer, the CCP’s main journal of political theory, Qiushi, published a version of that speech, titled “Uphold And Develop Socialism With Chinese Characteristics.” In the document, translated by Tanner Greer at Palladium Magazine, Xi presents the conflict between China and the West not as primarily economic but on the level of ideas: “Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fall to pieces? An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce! ... This is a lesson from the past! ... For a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system. In this long period of cooperation and conflict, socialism must learn from the boons that capitalism has brought to civilization” -economic, technological, and military might.
These warring philosophies, Xi suggests, will produce dueling systems of propaganda: “We must face the reality that people will use the strengths of developed, Western countries to denounce our country’s socialist development. Here we must have a great strategic determination, resolutely rejecting all false arguments that we should abandon socialism. We must consciously correct the various ideas that do not accord with our current stage.”
Xi has given contradictory statements about whether the CCP wants to export its system abroad. In 2017, he told a forum for foreign political groups that “we will not import other countries’ models, and will not export the China model.” Last year, in a speech to nonparty political advisers, he called the China model “a new type of political party system” that is “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity” -a flourish that seemed to signal just the opposite.
Indeed, influential hardline theorists within the CCP have begun to predict a large-scale, neo-imperial struggle between the US and China to center the world around their respective values. In such a struggle, these values will clash and seek to eradicate each other, even in very small ways, like Gap T-shirts that don’t respect China’s territorial sovereignty.
Today, short of a hot war, a nation pushes itself into a broader space primarily through the export of its technology: infrastructure, equipment, consumer goods, cyberwarfare, social media, and all the permutations thereof. Unsurprisingly, many observers see Trump’s trade war against China as primarily a technological one: pushing Chinese tech companies out of Western markets, forcing Western tech companies to stop doing business with Chinese ones, and blocking Chinese investments in the US tech sector.
The trade war isn’t popular, and it has taken a financial toll on working Americans -but that doesn’t mean Chinese tech firms aren’t also American adversaries. The CCP very plainly sees its homegrown tech giants as vectors to advance what it defines as the national interest.
“The leadership of Xi Jinping aspires to be a superpower in cyberspace in science and tech,” Sacks, the New America fellow, told me. “Creating national champion companies that can go out and be globally competitive is fundamental to that.”
These arrangements aren’t just implied or hoped for; more often, they’re formalized and enforced. Under Xi, party membership has become even more of a professional boon. Private companies set up dedicated party cells to comply with Article 19 of China’s corporate legal code, which requires “companies [to] provide the necessary conditions for the Party organizations to carry out their activities.” In practice, according to one China analyst, that has increasingly meant party members with influence over executive-level decision-making. Signs hung up around tech offices, according to the analyst, read “This company will not betray party values.”
“On the one hand I have not gone looking for a document where they say tech companies should act as platforms to retransmit party values and norms,” another China analyst at a major American think tank told me. “On the other hand, that document probably exists because that’s how they describe literally every other media platform. The party seeks to instrumentalize all of Chinese society as a vessel for its ambitions and preferred norms.”
And when the CCP decides a tech platform is harming its ambitions, the consequences can be severe.
In April 2018, the Chinese government forced ByteDance -the $75 billion company headquartered in Beijing that makes TikTok, the outrageously popular app for video sharing -to shut down a popular app called Neihan Duanzi. Its infraction? Hosting lewd jokes and comments that obliquely poked fun at the CCP. After the shutdown, ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming performed an elaborate apology in a public letter. “Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values,” he wrote. In the future, he added, the company would “further deepen cooperation with authoritative media.”
For a comparison, imagine Jack Dorsey apologizing to Trump for all the sick owns by Twitter users, then offering to build deeper synergies with Fox News.
What exactly the CCP’s ideological struggle as instrumentalized through tech platforms looks like beyond China's borders isn’t yet clear.
Chuanying Lu, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me that the international spread of its digital model is a much lower priority for the Chinese government than its domestic effect. "The data security, privacy, and social stability concerns are far more important than projecting influence around the world," he said.
But that doesn't mean it isn't happening. WeChat, the billion-user-strong Chinese messaging and payments app, has tens of millions of users outside of China. Media reports and China analysts both indicate that Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, has turned its frighteningly sophisticated censorship apparatus on foreign users by disallowing sensitive news stories and blocking dissidents who live overseas from sending messages.
Meanwhile, TikTok, the world’s most-downloaded app this year and China’s greatest global social media success, has strenuously denied censoring users’ content about the Hong Kong protests. But TikTok’s algorithm, like those of Facebook and Twitter, is a black box, and it’s impossible to tell the degree to which it limits content that challenges the CCP narrative versus what is the mere result of normal algorithmic activity. Last week, the Washington Post reported that ByteDance exerts strict control over what content can appear on the US version of the app, following a Reuters report that the US government had opened a national security investigation into TikTok. President Trump’s ban in May on American firms doing business with Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, suggests that restrictions against Chinese-made social platforms, mirroring the Chinese bans on Twitter, Facebook, and Google, aren’t outside the realm of possibility.
But there are other markets: Turkey, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, India. The whole rest of the world.
And the whole rest of the world can see exactly what’s happening in the US. It’s all right there, online. And when viewed without sentimentality about the primacy of the US and its values, the chaos machines of American social media become a much harder sell.
The US is in the midst of an identity crisis, one that has been hastened, for better or worse, by the mass use of largely unregulated social networks. Recently, a former Facebook executive encouraged me to think of our internet model as a proposition with costs and benefits. There are a lot of both.
Benefit: Americans have never had more information about their elected officials. Cost: Americans have never been more vulnerable to foreign influence in their elections. Benefit: Isolated young men find companionship in online affinity groups. Cost: Those affinity groups sometimes produce white nationalist terrorists. Americans have never heard more from politicians on social media. Americans have never heard more from politicians on social media. Et cetera.
It can be hard to know how to deal with the costs without canceling out the benefits; indeed, the openness of the American social networks can appear to be at once their greatest strength and most intractable weakness. And those weaknesses are real. Social trust in the US has imploded, and, according to a Pew poll, Americans list social media as the third-most-likely reason why (after “Societal/political problems” and “Government activity/inactivity.”)
The US is a mature, if imperiled, democracy, with strong, if imperiled, institutions. But other countries don’t necessarily share Americans’ relative capacity for nonviolent social conflict. So when American platforms tout the benefits of the unregulated internet in foreign markets, it can sound insane, like a raving drunk urging you to take a swig of Jack Daniels.
“We have pushed around the world an internet freedom agenda that says don’t try too hard to control social media,” Andrew Keane Woods, a law professor at the University of Arizona and a scholar of international law and technology, told me. “We’re still emphasizing a model of internet governance that was good for us when it was good for us.”
The US government and US tech companies emphasize it not just through rhetoric about free speech, but through trade deals and enforcement decisions. Recent agreements with Mexico, Canada, and Japan have tucked in legal protections for internet companies based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the controversial legislation that shields internet service providers from liability for content posted by third-party users. In other words: Your American speech device malfunctioned and hurt someone? Sorry, you can’t sue us. And foreign governments have had a notoriously difficult time getting networks like Facebook and Twitter to comply with local laws in the interest of taking down content. Sometimes Twitter has a good reason for that; a government might spuriously label a rival political group a terrorist organization in order to get Twitter to remove its content. But at other times, governments have simply had to block or shut out entire American social networks to prevent the spread of violence.
I recently talked to an executive at a major American social platform who speculated that Chinese social networks would quickly comply with any takedown request from a non-Chinese government.
“You will not see them battle for users,” they said. “How we respond to government requests is built around American notions of due process. They’re not thinking about these as values-based decisions the way we are.”
But the American tech platforms seem incapable of admitting that some governments -and the people who support them -may see authority and control as greater virtues than untrammeled speech or even human rights, especially when taking into account the bloody history of these platforms abroad. They facilitated the Arab Spring, yes. But also: They facilitated the Arab Spring! American social networks have fueled genocide in Myanmar, an authoritarian dystopia in the Philippines, and lynchings in India. I asked the same executive at a major social network what their company’s value proposition would be compared to a hypothetical Chinese app that offers equivalent features, strong control, and pro forma takedowns. The answer was an appeal to incumbency. “The rest of the world is on us,” they told me.
The scale advantage is even more powerful in tech than it is elsewhere. Maybe that’s the end of the conversation. But there is an irony to a Silicon Valley executive stressing incumbency as a sales pitch; if anyone should be afraid of a disruptor, offering a service no one else does, shouldn’t it be them?
Yes, it’s true that most of the world’s people who go online do so via American internet companies. But it’s also true that these platforms are young, and they don’t sell a physical product like the ones that led the globalization of American culture in the second half of the 20th century. They offer a service that to the vast majority of people in the world will look no different from a Chinese competitor.
That doesn't, of course, mean they're the same.
“Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are in many cases not good actors,” the China analyst at the major American think tank told me. “They are not forthcoming about how information spreads on their platform. But they are still light-years better than any Chinese social media platform.”
And yet, in a bipolar future where China wields economic clout comparable to that of the US, it’s easy to imagine governments choosing the devil they control over the devil they don’t.
“The values are so different,” the analyst said. “China has the juice to affect literally what path countries in Africa, Latin American, and the Middle East choose to take. The United States is never going to become an authoritarian country because of China, but hundreds of millions or billions of people will see their futures altered by the rise of this influence.”
Last month, after the NBA and several of its stars publicly undermined Daryl Morey’s support of the Hong Kong protesters, the American left and right united in their criticism. However briefly, they came together to heap scorn on so-called woke capitalism — the practice of supporting progressive social causes as long as they don’t hurt the bottom line, or indeed because they are good for it.
“While it is easy to defend freedom of speech when it costs you nothing, equivocating when profits are at stake is a betrayal of fundamental American values,” read a letter that was cosigned by eight members of Congress, including political foes Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The intensity of the reaction to the NBA’s capitulation -“These spineless weaklings have shamed themselves and their country,” read a column in the Washington Post at the time -seemed to exceed mere patriotic indignation. Trump, who literally invites foreign powers to investigate his political enemies, has never drawn such a furiously nationalistic condemnation.
Remember, though, that the “woke” causes of NBA players tend to be issues of racial injustice, which threaten foundational American stories about equality and opportunity. Remember that this discourse plays out mostly on Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, there is a deeper factor at work here in this messy collision of our open model of cyber sovereignty and China’s territorial aspirations: anger that Americans who persistently question the country’s legitimacy on American speech platforms won’t in turn question the legitimacy of the CCP in the same way. More than that, there is anxiety, even shame, over a market-driven world order that doesn’t revolve around US values. That the US has produced global brands -the NBA and Facebook -with a higher allegiance to the bottom line than to the flag is simply a tension inherent in the libertarian capitalist American ethos, one the Chinese government will never allow its corporations to have.
Here’s another way of thinking about it. The Chinese Communist Party has built an internet with its own best interests at its core. US internet companies have built an internet with their best interests at their core. Where this gets complicated is when actors -celebrities, brands, and tech companies themselves -are torn between serving the interests of the Chinese Communist Party and those of the US internet companies. Yet absent any other imperative, they will likely follow the money.
This explains Zuckerberg’s sudden patriotic turn. In a digital world increasingly drawn along allied national boundaries, it makes the most sense for his bottom line to be as big and as close as possible to the US government; something like a communications version of Boeing or Lockheed Martin. In a different tech sector, Amazon is already taking this path.
Breaking up our tech giants could absolutely have negative implications for our competition with China, which presents a far more coherent and predictable model of digital control.
“US and Chinese tech companies are actively competing for users and advertising, so it’s naive to think that breaking up a large successful American tech company would have no impact on the economic Cold War being fought between the two countries,” Matt Perault, the director of the Duke University Center for Science & Technology Policy and the former director of public policy at Facebook, told me recently.
But the cost of inaction might be worse.
A Facebook bloated from the government teat might never have to clarify its murky privacy and data collection policies, Samm Sacks, the New America fellow, said. This could precipitate a race to the bottom with China, in which the Zuckerbergs of the world use free speech as a fig leaf while exploiting their users more than ever; corporate overreach in the US would mirror state overreach in China. That would be an enormous propaganda victory for the CCP, which could then claim, cynically, that each country’s tech giants are equally dependent instruments of monolithic powers.
Indeed, the challenge for the American digital model in the future is to make the case that even in a time of extraordinary uncertainty around the world, freedom online is preferable to order.