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.
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.