Protectionism and the internet

My friend David Galbraith talks often about the lack of a meaningful European internet company. He has a point. After all, if the single largest economic area (by GDP) in the world hasn't been able to produce a truly global internet platform almost 30 years into this revolution, it is probably worth asking some questions. 

The reason why we too often avoid the discussion is that it requires to bring up some uncomfortable topics. Protectionism is among those. A taboo word for many people, generally associated with xenophobic sentiment of the new right or old school nostalgia of the left. There is sufficient evidence by now that trade wars don't bring much good. There is less evidence that (some) protectionism is by the default bad. After all, most advanced nations in the industrial world got a chance to develop their own heavy and manufacturing industries at a time where infrastructure itself created some barriers to trade. Low friction means high gravity, and gravity means concentration. 

After WW2, Import-substituting industrialisation became a popular term for emerging countries willing to catch up with more developed nations. The main idea was that by limiting access to foreign manufactured goods you could stimulate the birth and growth of a local industrial economy. The result was mostly disappointing. Not because goods could not be manufactured (or not with sufficient quality) but because "industrialisation" means more than just "manufacturing". We tend to associate it with a large span of social and economic changes which go well beyond what a factory can spit out.

Taken from a pure output point of view, it would be fair to say that China got the internet economy right. Better than Europe at least. By being closed to the US internet giants, it has created the condition for true native platforms to emerge. Europe, on the other hand, has assumed that industrial trade philosophy could be ported to the internet. That fighting excessive concentration could be sufficient to limit the power of internet monopolies. We all know how it went. 

We are left with the question of whether a more protectionist approach to the internet would have benefitted Europe more. I don't know. At the end of the day, the same argument could be made by each European country. "Why doesn't Italy have an internet giant like (insert country of choice)??" I prefer thinking that there is a European way to the information economy. Something that fits more with our value and our heritage. We can still build that, it can be our import-substituting digitalisation.