January 9, 2000
Welcome to the Internet, the First Global Colony
By STEVE LOHR
n the beginning, there was Pangaea. It was the Earth's great
land mass, the mother of all seven continents, which broke up 240
million years ago as Earth's tectonic plates moved apart. That was
the last global continent, until now.
The Internet is the new one, a cyber-Pangaea. But unlike the
original, this global realm is not really stateless. In many
respects, it is U.S. territory.
The odd thing is that many of the pioneering breakthroughs of
the Internet came from abroad, especially Europe. The World Wide
Web, for example, was created by an Oxford-educated physicist, Tim
Berners-Lee, while working in the shadow of the Swiss Alps at the
CERN physics laboratory outside Geneva.
But Berners-Lee, like so many emigrant technologists, soon
departed for the more fertile soil of America, where the
innovations of the Internet have flourished remarkably. The causes
cited by way of explanation are all ingredients that contribute to
the entrepreneurial climate in the United States -- venture capital
financing, close ties between business and universities, flexible
labor markets, a deregulated business environment, and a culture
that celebrates risk-taking, ambition and getting very, very rich.
The result is that the technology, economics and culture of the
Internet feel awfully American. The companies that have cashed in
on the Internet from newcomers like Amazon.com and Yahoo to the
established technology suppliers like IBM, Sun Microsystems, Cisco
and Microsoft are American. By one estimate, U.S. corporations
collect 85 percent of the revenues from the Internet business and
represent 95 percent of the stock market value of Internet
English is the dominant language of the Internet, found on most
Web sites and used in most e-mail. Perhaps most important, the
culture of the Net tends to be informal and individualistic,
decentralized and hard to control. This makes it the preferred
medium of dissident groups in countries around the world, and it
also makes it feel just like home to American net surfers. "The
Internet is profoundly disrespectful of tradition, established
order and hierarchy, and that is very American," observed Fareed
Zakaria, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.
Economically, the Internet is a transmitter of the kind of
relentless, consumer by consumer competition that can be volatile
and destabilizing. It has the astringent flavor of free-market
economics embraced in America more than elsewhere.
"If the United States government had tried to come up with a
scheme to spread its brand of capitalism and its emphasis on
political liberalism around the world, it couldn't have invented a
better model than the Internet," said Don Heath, president of the
Internet Society, an international organization.
Neither the values of the United States nor its faith in their
universal applicability are universally welcome, however, and the
same may be said of the Internet. France and Germany, among other
nations, are concerned that the Internet economy may prove
impossible for nations to regulate, and create such vast inequality
and rootlessness among its citizens that they will lose their sense
of social cohesion.
"Reasonable people understand the Internet is a technology
platform, not some form of American imperialism," noted Gerhard
Schulmeyer, who heads the U.S. arm of the big German company
"But the Internet moves rapidly and is a disruptive technology
that threatens institutions of all kinds, companies and trade
unions, so it has added to the sense in Europe that people's backs
are to the wall," Schulmeyer added.
Like much of America's influence on the world, the Internet lies
in the arena of what Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's
Kennedy School of Government terms "soft power." It's like rock
'n' roll or American movies, which earn lots of money, to be sure,
but mainly influence other nations by offering an irresistible
Still, despite America's early Internet lead, the Web is a vast
expanse, accommodating significant national and linguistic
differences. "There is a lot more diversity on the Internet than
just looking at the English-language Web pages might suggest, and
it's getting more diverse all the time," said Esther Dyson, editor
of Release 1.0, a newsletter that focuses on the Internet.
There is diversity, too, in how people believe the Internet
should be allowed to function. Europe, in particular, has offered
plenty of resistance to the U.S. self-regulatory approach for
handling personal data on the Internet. The Europeans believe that
Internet commerce poses a potentially alarming threat to privacy,
and after two years of negotiation, the two sides have been unable
to reach agreement on common principles.
Robert Litan, director of economic studies at the Brookings
Institution, calls the Internet privacy talks represent a "new-era
Today, nearly half of the global online population resides in
the United States. Forty four percent of Americans have Internet
access at home or at work, more than double the percentages in
Germany and Britain, according to Jupiter Communications. Only a
few Scandinavian countries, notably Sweden, approach the American
level of Internet access, the research firm reports.
This edge in Internet use is expected to decline steadily as
other countries, especially Europe and Japan, close the gap. And
some industry executives believe Europe could quickly catch,
perhaps even surpass America, in Internet technology as the world
moves beyond the personal computer as the primary device for
cruising the Net. In the coming "post-PC era," they say, people
will increasingly use wireless devices like "smart" cell phones
for e-mail, shopping and information services over the Internet.
European companies like Nokia hold the global lead in the cell
phone market largely because they rallied around a unified European
technology standard, known as GSM (Global System for Mobile
Communications), while U.S. companies competed with a handful of
But it is culture -- not raw technology alone -- that will
determine whether the United States retains its status as the
pre-eminent Internet nation. David Braunschvig, a managing director
of Lazard Freres & Co., is optimistic about Europe and he insists
"there is no logical reason why the U.S. should have this de facto
monopoly on Internet innovation."
Braunschvig, whose doctorate in computer science is from the
University of Paris, says he tells his friends at dinner parties in
France that all Europe with its 350 million people really needs to
produce is 30 or 40 entrepreneurs like Marc Andreessen, who left
college to co-found Netscape, the Internet browser pioneer. "My
European friends say, Of course, we've produced such people, but
they have moved to America," said Braunschvig, who lives in New