The Digital Iron Curtain

Russian President Vladimir Putin once noted that “whoever leads in AI will rule the world[i]”. He may just be right. From the battlefield to the kitchen, there is close to no aspect of society that artificial intelligence (AI), and high technology for that matter, will not touch. To put this assertion into perspective, the 2018 World Economic Forum meeting noted that 5G’s global impact is expected to be on par with the invention of electricity and the automobile. The technology will enable billions of new digital connections, advance the utility of AI through denser data transfer and is expected to contribute $12 trillion to global GDP by 2035[ii]

Though civilization sits on the horizon of a new world reminiscent of science fiction, shifting geopolitical dynamics and a brewing great power rivalry stand as forces capable of distorting, and ultimately setting the course of humanity on two starkly different paths.

The current erosion of U.S. – China relations stands as the catalyst for this prospective detour in a forthcoming technological revolution. From global economic uncertainty compounded by a battering trade war to the prospect of dangerous miscalculation in a region increasingly marred by power politics[iii], there is much at stake even this early on in what’s likely to be a century marked by stiff competition between the two superpowers.  

One of the most far-reaching casualties of this rivalry can be felt in technology. The “digital iron curtain” is a term currently being coined to describe the prospect of the formation of two distinct global digital ecosystems brought on by Chinese – U.S. contention in the technology sector[iv]. Societies around the world would be divided via the internet and devices they use rather than walls and barbed wire. 

New America Foundation Fellow Samm Sacks provided a compelling reason this is occuring at Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum in Beijing this past November. Miss Sacks argues that the United States is pursuing a policy founded on paranoia and fear, in which all Chinese companies and researchers are seen as nefarious. In contrast, China is cultivating an environment of “techno nationalism” where the government views technology as a tool and appendage of the state[v]. These policy choices are fostering an environment incompatible with cooperation. Political ideology, economic nationalism, and increasing suspicion of the other is laying the foundation for a wall separating two of the world’s most technologically adept countries.

Indications of this divide are already unfolding. Following a May 2019 executive order that virtually bans the Chinese tech giant Huawei in the United States and limits U.S. companies from cooperating with it, Google stripped the firm from use of its Android operating system[vi]. Though this ban has been temporarily lifted, it has cemented volatility and mistrust in the trade relationship between the two. It has also compelled Huawei to develop its own native operating system in the event that the restriction is imposed. Huawei smartphone sales outside of China could dwindle if their access to widely used Google services are permanently cut off. 

This individual case demonstrates that when the avenues enabling the interdependence between U.S. and Chinese tech firms close, it ultimately forces each side to ensure they become independent from the other. 

The greatest implications of this divide will become more visible as the second half of the world comes online. The International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Measuring the Information Society Report (2018) estimates that around 3.9 billion people, or around 51% of the world’s population, now has access to the internet[vii]. This leaves a huge segment of the world without the kind of tech that China and the United States will compete vigorously to rollout within these developing markets. When the current polarization and competitive attitudes are taken into account, it’s no surprise that the world sits on the cusp of falling between a deeply divided American and Chinese led digital market. 

These two distinct digital orders may incorporate and draw themselves along political boundaries. Democracies sharing the United States’ culture of a free and open internet promoting freedom of speech and expression will be more inclined to work with Western firms over Chinese ones. Authoritarian countries may find it more attractive to work with the latter to satiate, rather than challenge, their desire to consolidate political power. The prospective benefits that advanced technology brings to the future is ultimately being constrained by a vital relationship in disarray.    

[i] Vincent, James. “Putin Says the Nation That Leads in AI ‘Will Be the Ruler of the World’.” The Verge, 4 Sept. 2017,

[ii] Rosenberg, Don. “How 5G Will Change the World.” World Economic Forum, 18 Jan. 2018,

[iii] “Global Conflict Tracker l Council on Foreign Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations,

[iv] Yuan, Li. “As Huawei Loses Google, the U.S.-China Tech Cold War Gets Its Iron Curtain.” The New York Times, 20 May 2019,

[v] “’Digital Iron Curtain’ Will Have Grave Consequences for Humanity: Sacks.” YouTube, Bloomberg Live, 26 Nov. 2019,

[vi] Weinstein, Natalie. “Google Cuts off Huawei Phones from Future Android Updates.” CNET, 20 May 2019,

[vii] “Measuring the Information Society Report 2018.” International Telecommunication Union , 2018,

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