By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

The New Empires Of The Internet

The world today is a geopolitical hot mess. One source of that messiness is a lack of consensus among scholars and policymakers about the global distribution of power. Do we still live in a world of U.S. hegemony? Is it a bipolar or multipolar world? Or are states no longer the globe’s key actors, and do we instead live in an age of “technopolarity,” where corporate titans such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and billionaire Elon Musk are the new great powers?

The academic cacophony is disturbing. Uncertainty about the distribution of power is not merely a matter of debate; when actors disagree about the distribution of power, wars can start.

Two books published last year offer divergent takes on these questions. In Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy, Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman posit that the United States still wields a considerable amount of structural power in the global system. Anu Bradford’s Digital Empires: The Global Battle to Regulate Technology, however, argues that the surprising superpower is neither the United States nor China but the European Union.

Both books examine the exercise of power and governance in the digital sphere. Their contrasting evaluations help explain why it is so difficult for even the sharpest observers of global affairs to agree about the current state of the world—particularly when technology is involved.

Farrell and Newman’s Underground Empire builds on the pair’s pathbreaking 2019 article in International Security, “Weaponized Interdependence: How Global Economic Networks Shape State Coercion.” In that paper, Farrell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Newman, a professor at Georgetown University, posited that, across many economic sectors, globalization generated a network structure that concentrated power in a few central nodes. States that controlled those nodes—such as the United States—could exercise considerable global influence.

Underground Empire reminds readers of the article’s core argument. In their introduction, the authors write, “The global economy relied on a preconstructed system of tunnels and conduits that the United States could move into and adapt, nearly as easily as if they had been custom-designed by a military engineer for that purpose. By seizing control of key intersections, the U.S. government could secretly listen to what adversaries were saying to each other or freeze them out of the global financial system.”

Underground Empire expands far beyond this point, however. There is an interesting discussion, for one, of how the private sector helped create this centralized world and the conditions under which multinational corporations have been willing extensions of federal power: “Entrepreneur after entrepreneur discovered that the best way to turn a profit in a decentralized economy was to figure out ways to centralize parts of it again.”

Bradford’s Digital Empires similarly builds on earlier work. Bradford draws from her 2020 book, The Brussels Effect, which argues that the EU’s combination of market power and technocratic capacity made it a superpower in issue areas where Europeans preferred stringent regulatory standards. In Digital Empires, Bradford, a professor at Columbia Law School, contends that there are three great powers when it comes to online technology—and each of them offers a different variety of digital capitalism. As she describes it, “the US has pioneered a largely market-driven model, China a state-driven model, and the EU a rights-driven model.”

These varying approaches lead to horizontal clashes between the United States, China, and the EU on regulatory and technological issues such as data privacy and content moderation. Divergent digital preferences also create vertical clashes between these governments and the tech companies supplying digital infrastructure and services. The Chinese state cowed its firms into greater compliance with government dictates; U.S. firms have been more willing to fight the federal government on questions of data privacy.

EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager gestures as she speaks during a news conference on the Apple antitrust case at EU headquarters in Brussels.

Both Underground Empire and Digital Empires are analytically sharp and worth reading. Farrell and Newman pepper their narrative with entertaining anecdotes—such as the fact that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) labeled the internet’s international choke points after ski resorts. Bradford’s book is encyclopedic in its range; her discussion of global online policy disputes on issues including antitrust and artificial intelligence is comprehensive and useful for anyone wishing to read up on the subject matter.

Comparing and contrasting the authors’ arguments—as I am about to do—leads where they agree. Both Underground Empire and Digital Empires stress the importance of institutional capacity as a means that states use to exercise power; some of Bradford’s arguments resemble those that Farrell and Newman made in their 2019 book, Of Privacy and Power. The new books also suggest that the concept of technopolarity does not have legs. After reading both books, one is likely to conclude that state power will be able to pressure the private sector into compliance with core national interests.

Nonetheless, what makes these books such interesting reading is where they diverge: the sources of state power in cyberspace.

For Farrell and Newman, Washington retains considerable structural power because so much of the digital world originated in the United States. This network centrality endows the United States with the ability to surveil, influence, and—if necessary—coerce other actors across multiple realms.

At least some of this was by design: The authors write that, during the early days of the internet, “[a]ccording to a former NSA employee, the U.S. government ‘quietly encourage[d] the telecommunications industry to increase the amount of international traffic that is routed through American-based switches’ to make it easier to spy on the world.” With China-U.S. tech competition heating up, Washington has employed unconventional measures to pressure China. These include the foreign direct product rule, which allows the United States to ban the export of products from other countries if those products rely on U.S.-made components or technology.

Overall, Underground Empire suggests that some forms of structural power are extremely difficult to dislodge. As during the late 1980s—when many international relations scholars believed the United States was in terminal decline, only for the country to be the last superpower standing a decade later—commentators may be underestimating current U.S. power in the digital world.

For Bradford, however, what matters is the combination of market power, state capacity, and attractiveness of a government’s regulatory preferences. This formula enables her to predict that, going forward, the EU will be the most important democratic actor in global digital governance. The EU’s lack of big tech firms is a plus in Bradford’s model because it reduces the EU’s incentive to cater to domestic interest groups.

According to Digital Empires, the laissez-faire market-based U.S. model of tech governance is losing its appeal both at home and abroad. Domestically, both major political parties have soured on Big Tech, albeit for different reasons. Democrats distrust the corporate concentration of Big Tech, while Republicans are convinced that content moderation has an anti-conservative bias. Globally, concerns about data privacy have made life more difficult for the Big Five tech firms—Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft.

As the U.S. model loses its luster, Bradford posits that the United States will align more closely with the EU against China’s more authoritarian model of digital governance. For Bradford, therefore, what matters is not control over critical nodes but control over critical markets.

The definitions of digital power proffered in Underground Empire and Digital Empires are not mutually exclusive. It can be simultaneously true that the United States retains considerable structural power and the EU exercises its market power adroitly—and all the while China tries to amass both forms of power. Still, if there are arenas of contestation where U.S., European, and Chinese officials disagree, whose form of power might prevail?

Here, one would have to give a slight edge to Farrell and Newman and their argument in favor of U.S. structural power. Bradford’s case for the EU is weakened by a few empirical and theoretical claims that do not hold up. Her chapter on the “waning global influence of American techno-libertarianism” is normatively persuasive about the downsides of the U.S. model. Her claim that other democracies have turned against the U.S. model, however, relies almost entirely on criticisms levied by those countries after the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations rather than meaningful policy change.

There are two other areas where Bradford’s predictions are even more untenable. She suggests in her conclusion that “tech companies were reluctant to moderate content on their platforms but now increasingly concede they have a responsibility to do so more proactively.” This claim has not aged well. After Musk stripped Twitter’s content moderation team in 2022, other big tech firms followed suit. As the Washington Post reported last August, “[s]ocial media companies are receding from their role as watchdogs against political misinformation, abandoning their most aggressive efforts to police online falsehoods.” There is no sign of this trend abating during this record-breaking global year of elections.

Bradford also claims that the United States is moving toward the EU on AI regulations. “Artificial intelligence may well be the next frontier of the Brussels Effect,” she writes, adding that the EU’s AI regulation “may also serve as a template for other jurisdictions.” But a recent Politico story about the clash of EU and U.S. AI standards suggested a different outcome. EU member states such as France do not necessarily agree with Brussels. U.S. officials, along with Silicon Valley representatives, have also pushed back hard on EU standards. The result? “Heading into 2024, those who want a lighter touch appear to be winning, despite EU’s new binding rules on AI,” the Politico authors wrote.

The sources of power in cyberspace undoubtedly reside somewhere between Underground Empire and Digital Empires. It is possible, however, that they may also shift over time. Farrell and Newman’s argument holds considerable power for newer technologies as they emerge; what Underground Empire reveals is that geography matters even in cyberspace, particularly when the contours of any technological network remain somewhat obscured.

As time passes and technologies become more standardized, however, governments can also move down the learning curve. At these junctures, Bradford’s arguments about market power start to gain greater validity. This explains how both China and the EU remain great powers in a digital world.

In the end, what Underground Empire and Digital Empires suggest is that technology can help international relations theorists better understand the power debates that have haunted them since the days of Sparta and Athens.



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