During the advent of consumer computing, the internet was envisioned to connect people from all over the world and help lead towards a globalized society that transcends national borders. Close to two decades down the line, the world does seem to be more connected than ever before. Yet, the global internet as we know it is on the verge of splintering into smaller bubbles of national networks due to aggressive national policies, trade disputes, censorship, and dissatisfaction with big tech companies.
Dubbed as the ‘Splinternet’ by some experts, this digital Balkanisation has far-reaching consequences that impact international unions, data enterprises and individual consumers alike. While this is not entirely new, with nations like China isolating themselves from the global internet for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift. Many nations are pushing for a greater focus on self-interests and security.
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Global shifts towards the splinternet
Perhaps the most sophisticated instance of a splintered internet today would be China’s Great Firewall’. Walled in by a combination of actual firewalls, government propaganda and severe government censorship, the Chinese internet is markedly different from the internet most of the world is used to seeing. What are seen as essential services, like Google Search and Maps, Western social media, and so on – are entirely banned and replaced by Chinese alternatives like Weibo in the name of Cyber Sovereignty. In fact, research published by Oracle stated that China’s internet is effectively an intranet that can function even if the rest of the global network shuts down.
In 2018, the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, predicted that the internet would bifurcate into a Chinese led faction with nations in Asia, Africa and Europe that have agreements with China and a Western-led faction. Chinese cyber-diplomacy seems to be pushing towards the same. In 2020, the nation of Uganda used extensive surveillance and facial recognition system to crack down on protesting citizens, a system developed by Chinese tech giant Huawei. A few months later, in January of 2021, Facebook and Twitter took down a network of accounts associated with the Ugandan government trying to spread misinformation and influence elections. Shortly after that, the Ugandan Communications Commission cut off the internet within the country. Other African nations are also following suit by increasing governmental control and regulations and restricting social media and Internet access. Regulation initially came in the form of laws claiming to prevent hate speech and misinformation. However, they soon began targeting the platforms themselves, seeking to either censor them or remove them entirely.
Russia’s internet censorship laws also led them to initiate a nation-wide restriction on access to the external internet, and successfully test run their intranet in late 2019. Other similar networks include North Korea’s Kwamyong (Bright Light), Cuba’s Red Cubana and Iran’s National Information Network, all established to control the flow of information claiming national security as a concern. Most of these can even restrict access to VPNs, completely isolating their citizens from the global internet.
Data Privacy laws
Not all shifts towards a Splinternet arise from censorship. The mass exodus of American users from Twitter towards localized platforms like Parler and Gab was borne out of their dissatisfaction with the way big tech companies are managing information, with minimal official government involvement. The popularity of the Indian app Koo can be attributed to the same.
Additionally, privacy laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Brazil’s General Data Privacy Law (LGPD) prioritise user and data privacy over freedom of expression. This leads to major news and other websites being blocked due to reasons like less-than-ideal third party cookie policies, as well as threats of a complete ban on big tech platforms that refuse to comply with the laws. Similarly, the Indian government has also banned a long list of Chinese apps citing data privacy concerns.
Social Media companies can also be the ones to initiate fractures on the internet, the most notable recent example being the battle between Facebook, Google and the Australian government, where the companies briefly cut off access to news pages and considered exiting the country entirely.
Impact on consumers and data enterprises
The most significant impact that a Splinternet would have would be their severely limited access to information. Twitter’s temporary suspension of accounts and removing their visibility within India is one instance of this. The new IT rules in India also have the potential to increase government surveillance and censorship. Google’s recent threat to suspend their search engine in Australia, if implemented, would also be contributing to the widespread loss of easy access to information.
Increasingly complex regulations and policies also exacerbate the costs of running businesses and could cause many to shut down or exit the host nation. Many businesses also heavily rely on global data accumulated by centralized enterprises, and a Splinternet would impact both categories of businesses.