Breaking Up the Internet
Natural fragmentation and natural oligopoly
|Aug 8, 2020||3|
Disclosure: I work at and hold equity in a company that benefits from this framing.
The fragmentation of the internet is continuing. Top of mind for most Americans is the possible nationalization of TikTok. The Trump administration is also saber-rattling with a “Clean Network". This behavior is dangerous for the future of American companies. We are losing the moral high ground on open markets, and fewer markets will be open to American companies. Fragmentation will accelerate.
There was already some natural fragmentation
Natural fragmentation. In some internet-enabled businesses, locals have a strong home-field advantage. They tend to not need any protection. There are millions of small complexities not translatable across borders. Or there is a need for a strong ground game. Examples include ridesharing/food delivery, accounting/tax, logistics, non-card payments, e-commerce, SME services.
Natural oligopoly/monopoly. Other businesses are much more global. They don't need much local customization. This means providers can scale, bottoms-up, even without an office or local entity. Returns on scale mean winners take most. Examples include social media, communications, search, most SaaS, card-based payments, and digital infrastructure.
The current global providers of naturally oligopolic (love that I can do this in English) services are generally American. AWS (but not Amazon.com), and MS Azure will continue to dominate. WhatsApp is everywhere outside of the US and East Asia. Instagram is everywhere except China. Google search and Android will be near-impossible to unseat. However, America has burned through the goodwill generated by programs like Internet.org and Next Billion Users.
Regulatory fragmentation is coming for the natural oligopolists
"How Asia Works" suggests a few key differences between successful and unsuccessful modernization. Successful countries protected and nurtured domestic manufacturing, but with mandated export discipline. Locals were protected at home, and got a lot of help, but had to compete globally. Unsuccessful countries opened access to domestic markets, but did not up-skill. Their economies are still dominated by multinationals. Oil, mining, auto, electronics.
China and Russia applied this framework to the internet. They've built protected local internets. India is starting, too. Governments will try to reduce the influence of Silicon Valley/Washington, and political stability / economic sovereignty will take priority.
Facebook has seen the fragmentation accelerating, and is scrambling to find local allies. It recently invested in Reliance Jio (India) and Gojek (Indonesia), both national champions. These also happen to contain 22% of the world's population. Reliance Jio and Gojek will then encourage local lawmakers to remain open to FB.
Scott Kupor @skuporThe silence from the business and journalist communities re the govt's ability to literally shut down a company overnight is deafening. Tik Tok will be the first salvo in a prolonged attack on commerce and not just in the US - every country will cite it to justify future actions.
Real answer is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, but that’s never stopped thinkbois like me from speculating. Generalizing from the FB example:
Politicians, regulators, state media (especially large, nationalistic, or authoritarian ones) intensify targeting American companies for:
Nationalization / divestments
Favoritism toward local champions become more overt
“Regulatory consulting”, campaign donations, direct bribery grow
Multinational (esp. American) corp dev teams get busier yet face more uncertainty
Development dollars used as currency for US/Chinese alignment
Local competitors to natural oligopolies in large markets; in the short term. If markets open up again and they can’t get legal barriers, they’ll get stomped
Politically-connected entrepreneurs, “regulatory consultants” and lawyers
Consumers in small, still-open, or previously-ignored markets
VCs who can’t get into X, but can get into X for Region
Local competitors in small, still-open markets, who get stomped in the short term
Consumers in restricted markets, who get less choice
Companies with X for Everywhere baked into valuation
American multinationals on average. $FB? $MTCH? $NFLX? Someone else can tell you how much international growth is baked into valuations.
Some other examples that helped form this thesis:
List is definitely incomplete. I've ignored Africa and most of Central/South America, which I know little about. I would love to learn more.
Ridesharing - Uber burned billions then sold local ops to Didi, Grab, Yandex
Ecommerce - Amazon.com losing in Asia (seems ok in Europe)
Food delivery wars are not settled, but mostly local players
Stripe has given up on India
TikTok nationalization in the US
Reliance Jio's fundraising bonanza. It included Facebook, Google, a bunch of American private equity, the UAE and Saudi sovereign wealth funds
India bans on Chinese apps, bounty for a local Zoom clone
Lark, Bytedance's Slack competitor
Whatsapp Pay blocked in India and Brazil
Indonesia’s “foreign digital goods” tax
Facebook censoring in Singapore
Thanks to Turner Novak for reading a draft of this essay.
If you want to talk about this more hit me up @chiefofstuffs on Twitter