John Harris

Journalist & Author

The global battle for the internet is just starting | John Harris

Two competing visions of our digital future have emerged from China and Silicon Valley. But are they really so different?

If only for a moment, set aside the comparatively parochial drama of Brexit, think about the giant swath of humanity that now uses the internet, and consider one of the most basic facets of how 4 billion of us live our lives. This is a 21st-century story, but it will ring bells with people old enough to remember the cold war: how people understand their own experience and events in the wider world is increasingly decided by the version of the internet they use.

On one side sits the system used in China, which produces vast amounts of personal data and blurs into a huge apparatus of state surveillance and censorship. This model is centred on two online behemoths, whose dominance partly comes down to the fact that Chinese consumerism is all about paying via your smartphone, rather than an old-fashioned plastic card. There’s the e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba, and Tencent, which owns WeChat, the platform used by more than 1 billion people every day. It does so many things – payments, social networking, messaging, travel booking, gaming – that participating in society without it seems all but impossible.

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