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The three empires of our digital world [infographic]

Today, there are three dominant technology, economic, and regulatory powers that can be viewed as digital empires, each with the ambition and capability to shape the global digital order towards their interests and values. Each jurisdiction also holds a different vision for the digital economy, which is reflected in the regulatory models they have adopted. The US has pioneered a largely market-driven model; China a state-driven model; and the EU a rights-driven model. Exploring the nuances and different values undergirding each of these models helps understand conflicts that are unfolding and others that will likely come.

Infographic text reads: Digital Empires. The global battle to regulate technology. In today's world, there are three dominant digital powers: the US, China, and the EU. Each of these powers are in competition to shape the global digital order in alignment with their own interests and values. The US's market-driven model. Centered on protecting free speech, the free internet, and incentives to innovate. Characterized by techno-optimism and the pursuit of innovation. Views the internet as a source of economic prosperity and political freedom. The government's expected role is limited and focuses on the protection of national security. China's state-driven model. Chinese government seeks to maximize the country's technological dominance while maintaining control over its citizen's communications. Leverages technology to fuel the state's economic growth and development. Uses the internet as a tool for control, surveillance, and propaganda in the services of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In exchange for initially lax regulation, private tech companies act as the CCP's surrogates performing surveillance and control functions over their users. The EU's rights-driven model. Embraces a human-centric approach to regulating the digital economy. Technology must be harnessed with the aim of safeguarding the political autonomy of digital citizens. Seeks to balance the right to free speech with other fundamental rights including human dignity and the right to privacy. Emphasizes that digital transformation must be firmly anchored in the rule of law. Learn more in "Digital Empires" by Any Bradford, published by Oxford University Press.

The US, China, and the EU are exporting their domestic regulatory models in an effort to expand their respective spheres of influence, pulling other countries into the orbits of the American, Chinese, or European digital empires. The US’ global influence today manifests through the dominance of its tech companies that exercise private power across the global digital sphere. China’s global influence can be traced to its infrastructure power, where Chinese firms—all with close ties to the Chinese state—are building critical digital network infrastructures in countries near and far. The EU exercises global influence primarily through regulatory power that entrenches European digital norms across the global marketplace. These modes of influence have ingrained American private power, Chinese infrastructure power, and European regulatory power deep into the economic, physical, and legal foundations of foreign societies. Which digital empire will prevail in the contest for global influence remains an open question, yet their contrasting strategies are now increasingly clear.  

Digital societies are at an inflection point. In the midst of unfolding regulatory battles, governments, tech companies, and digital citizens are making important choices that will shape the future ethos of the digital society. It is crucial that we all understand the choices we face as societies and individuals along with the forces that shape those choices, and the immense stakes involved for everyone who uses digital technologies. 

Featured image by Kevin Crosby on Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments


    The question of which empire will ultimately prevail is indeed intriguing. As digital citizens, we must be aware of the choices we make in this rapidly evolving digital society and the stakes involved. It’s a complex, multifaceted issue that demands our attention and thoughtful discussion.

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