Free Trade, Nationalism and Empire

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The more I get to know about the web, the more it looks like the world. Take for instance the attitudes of media owners, ad networks and enabling technologies, which in the end starts to sound an awful lot like the free trade vs. protectionism debate.

For starters, you’ve got rich countries and poor countries. Some countries have enormous wealth and resources – Turner, ESPN and Wall Street Journal are all rich in prime content assets, audience composition and more. Those countries argue for a strong border: No network relationships, very little third party technology. We’ll be in charge of what goes on here and who comes in.

Poorer countries – sites with larger populations but weaker national identity and content resources – are much more in favor of free trade. Open up the border, let’s all get along. The flow of people and goods is vital to raising their standard of living, and they’ll be far more amenable on price and working conditions.

Ad Networks are the multinationals. They’re dispassionate about national identity and unconcerned about borders. They’re simply trying to maximize profit, grow their share of market vs. other multinationals and create wealth and power. Enabling technologies — everything from ad serving to data provision – they are the shipping and communication providers of the age; the more things move around, the bigger the market for their services.

The debate I’ve observed over the last decade among these players has been shrouded in rhetoric and emotion. But in the end, every one of these positions is perfectly defensible. There’s no morality and immorality here, only enlightened self interest and calculation. It’s as true in the digital marketing world as it was in the geopolitical worlds of the 1990s and the 16th century. So stop arguing about what’s right or wrong or “should be.” It all just “is.”

One final thought: Much like Elizabethan England in the 16th Century, some relatively small, resource-starved ‘country’ is going to tag along with the multinationals and shipping providers and create itself an empire through alliances, intelligence and smart management. And it will have a pretty good run. I wonder which one it will be. And I wonder how many will follow.

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