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The Internet Is Different Depending Where You Live. But It Doesn’t Have to Stay That Way

The WeChat app is seen on an iPhone.The WeChat app is seen on an iPhone.
The WeChat app is seen on an iPhone. Internet users in the U.S. and China have vastly different experiences. This divided "splinternet" hurts innovation, writes Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel.Jaap Arriens—NurPhoto via Getty Images

During my recent trip to Hong Kong, I found myself in hushed, and not-so-hushed, discussions about a concerning trend: the fracturing of the digital universe into separate systems.

In China, it is easy to see this split given the very different experiences one has there versus in the U.S. There is no Google, no Facebook, and no Twitter. In America, few people use services that a Chinese person uses every day, like the super-app WeChat or alternative payment methods like Alipay.

This divide is poised to become even wider as the conversation around 5G networks continues to be politically charged. It’s now sometimes dubbed the “splinternet”—a formally bifurcated system. If we continue on the path toward separate networks and standards, consumers and businesses on both sides of the divide will miss out on the innovation and integration that comes from an open, unified system.

But it doesn’t have to be this way; there’s still a chance for us to find a solution that benefits everyone. As business and technology leaders, it is our responsibility to resist the prevailing narrative. That means raising our voices and expanding on the conversations we are having at global tech events to let all leaders know we need a better approach.

We should all acknowledge that both systems offer benefits for consumers and tech companies alike. The freedom of information on which the U.S.-oriented Internet was founded has revolutionized society and the business community; without it, Silicon Valley might not exist in its current form and the world would be worse off.

In China, the efficiency of mobile networks and the opportunity to start with an almost blank slate digital environment has led to the rapid development of tightly woven technologies, creating remarkably seamless online experiences. Consumers there live in what can seem like a futuristic world to many Americans, able to effortlessly make mobile payments for transactions everywhere and adapting to changing online infrastructure quickly and efficiently.

Ideally, we’d all live in a unified global market that properly protects intellectual property rights and allows businesses to freely operate in any jurisdiction. In this world, consumers and businesses would adopt the best elements of each national system.

At Booking Holdings, we’ve invested nearly $3 billion in Chinese firms like Ctrip, Meituan-Dianping, and DiDi, working closely with these companies to make travel easier for those coming into and out of China. If we continue to build on these systems, we will all benefit. However, if 5G networks diverge, businesses will face a conundrum: potentially double development resources for each new experience or deliver it to only part of the globe. If this happens, I have no doubt the rate of innovation will slow for everyone.

The moment we’re confronting today is key: Do we let burgeoning divisions get worse, or do we speak out and try to stop this?

I’m hopeful, largely because of the incredible achievement of the Internet itself. A truly global creation, the Internet has brought us together, overcoming both distance and cultural differences. It has been a key contributor in lifting billions of people from terrible poverty. It has accelerated basic science research that has led to tremendous advancements in health. It has made education more accessible and our social ties tighter.

As the CEO of a technology company, I believe we have to continue meeting formidable change with optimism—to see opportunities in these challenges and to push the public conversation toward more connectivity, not less. Imagine a global 5G Internet that marries the frictionless user experience of China’s web with the freedom of information we treasure in the U.S. Imagine the innovations made possible and the infinite opportunities for societies and individuals alike. That future is still possible, if we are willing to speak out for it.

Glenn Fogel is the president and CEO of Booking Holdings.

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