The Global Internet Is a Mirage

Alma L. Figueroa

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The U.S. government’s proposed ban on Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat plays into technologists’ fears that the internet utopia is crumbling.

The worry is that instead of a world brought closer together by the internet, a tech fight between the United States and China threatens to further splinter the digital world along country borders.

I share those concerns. But let me explain why a splintered internet isn’t so novel, or necessarily a horrible thing.

First, the internet was never as global or interconnected as the ideal. What we mean when we talk about a unified global internet is a history in which the internet was dominated by America, with U.S. companies and U.S. values infusing the world. The exception was China, which operated a parallel internet world.

For years, foreign governments at times pushed back at the American-tinged internet. They sometimes had understandable reasons. Germany, for example, has strong norms of personal privacy and strict rules against denial of the Holocaust. That has resulted in conflict with the American internet companies’ standards of personal data collection and free expression.

Other times, governments have imposed restrictions on online activity to silence opposition from their own citizens. Whether or not we agree with such tactics, the internet has never been a single global blob where borders didn’t matter.

And do we want it to be? I’m an American, and I prefer our relatively freewheeling internet to what exists in Russia or Vietnam. But I also recognize that each country has its own tax codes, labor laws and auto safety regulations. When Ford makes car bumpers, it has to figure out how to alter designs to meet different safety rules in Italy and Nigeria.

There are technical reasons that it’s trickier to make country-to-country rules about a website than the strength of car bumpers. But the idea of internet policy changing when you go from Brazil to Argentina is not crazy.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing to worry about. I’m concerned that banning apps, writing laws restricting what people can say online or shutting down internet access entirely costs people digital lifelines to the outside world, and that the internet is one more way for authoritarian regimes to exert dominance.

But it’s not productive to pine for a utopian internet that never really existed. When technologists lament the fracturing of the internet world, I wonder if what they’re really mourning is the fracturing of the world, period.

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Brian X. Chen, a personal technology columnist for The New York Times, walks through the benefits and drawbacks of “smart” televisions that let us download Netflix, YouTube and other video services directly from our sets.

Carolyn Moore from Lubbock, Texas, asked, “Can you write about the pros and cons of buying a smart TV during the pandemic?”

It’s an intriguing question because for the most part, you don’t have a choice but to get a smart TV these days. A vast majority of new televisions from reputable brands connect to the internet and include streaming apps from providers like Netflix and Amazon.

Even the cheap TVs tend to be “smart,” in large part because they collect information about our viewing activity and location. The data, which is shared with third-party marketers, has become an additional revenue stream for television makers.

That’s the major downside of smart TVs: They compromise privacy. My colleagues in Smarter Living wrote a step-by-step guide to opting out of data tracking by sets sold by Samsung, LG, Sony, Vizio, TCL and Roku. It’s worth revisiting.

Another downside is that some smart TVs have crummy user interfaces that are confusing to navigate. Samsung TVs are difficult to use, in my experience. Some TVs also won’t have all the apps you want. My smart TV from LG doesn’t have the HBO Max app, for example.

I like Roku smart TVs because of the simpler software interface and the broad catalog of available streaming apps.

The benefit of smart TVs is that you won’t have to buy or plug in a separate streaming video device such as an Apple TV, Roku streaming stick or Google Chromecast.

As for me, however, I have an LG smart TV, but I still use my Apple TV set-top box because it has all the apps I want to use.

I hope that helps, Carolyn!

  • Digging behind claims of conservative bias online: Ben Smith, The Times’s media columnist, writes that misinformation on social media “is a central tactic of the right” in the Trump era, and that’s why posts from right-wing media are more often flagged for fact-checking or moderation online.

  • For the Monty Python fans: Start-ups are not dead yet. Experts — and I — expected that investment money would dry up during the pandemic and the decade-long golden age for young tech companies would end. That hasn’t really happened, my colleague Erin Griffith writes. Some start-ups did lay off large numbers of employees or close, but investment money and faith in start-ups have largely continued as before.

  • Everything on the internet is terrible, except for this: A woman frustrated with demeaning conversations online started a Twitter account that combines images from historical art with captions that capture her rage about “mansplaining” and other experiences women face. It is hilarious, and my colleague Alisha Haridasani Gupta writes that the Twitter account is becoming a book.

Check out this cutie dressed up as a panda munching on carrot sticks from its purse.

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