The PR BlogPR TrendsBusiness ShiftsThe Splinternet—Mankind’s Battle for Internet Control

The Splinternet — Mankind’s Battle for Internet Control

The most epic power struggle of our era.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Is the splin­ter­net com­ing — or is it already upon us?

The splin­ter­net is the idea that the inter­net “splin­ters” into sev­er­al dif­fer­ent inter­nets that aren’t con­nec­ted in any mean­ing­ful way.

The splin­ter­net (also referred to as cyber-balkan­isa­tion or inter­net balkan­isa­tion) is a char­ac­ter­isa­tion of the Internet as splin­ter­ing and divid­ing due to vari­ous factors, such as tech­no­logy, com­merce, polit­ics, nation­al­ism, reli­gion, and diver­gent nation­al interests.”
Source: Splinternet (Wikipedia) 1Splinternet. (2022, December 12). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​S​p​l​i​n​t​e​r​net

The idea of the splin­ter­net is by no means a new concept.

Early tech blog­gers like Doc Searls and Stephen Lewis began the­or­ising about a splin­ter­net as early as 2008, not­ing that the free and open ideals that built the world wide web are increas­ingly at odds with the polit­ic­al agen­das of gov­ern­ments across the globe.”
Source: Tech lead­ers have long pre­dicted a ‘splin­ter­net’ future where the web is divided between the US and China

Some sug­gest that this splin­ter­ing is now becom­ing worse and worse. 

Internet is falling apart, dark, neon, cables, highly detailed - The Splinternet
AI art. Prompt: “Internet is fall­ing apart, dark, neon, cables, highly detailed.”

In Western media, China is often named as one of the main cul­prits on the glob­al stage when it comes to the splin­ter­net — and also the biggest win­ner of such a Balkanisation.

A frac­tured inter­net means coun­tries that can col­lect large amounts of data with­in their own bor­ders will have an advant­age in devel­op­ing arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and oth­er tech­no­lo­gies. Nowhere more so than China, with 900 mil­lion people on the inter­net. There are already signs that pop­u­la­tion is becom­ing a key driver in innov­a­tion and eco­nom­ic growth. China’s share in the top 10% of most-cited papers on AI came to 26.5% in 2018, accord­ing to the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, fast approach­ing the American share of 29%. Allen Institute seni­or pro­gram man­ager Carissa Schoenick pre­dicted in 2019 that China was poised to unseat the US as the world’s lead­er in the com­ing years. […] China now accounts for 23% of cross-bor­der data flows, nearly twice the share of the US, which ranks a dis­tant second with 12%.”
Source: China rises as world’s data super­power as inter­net fractures

This is a prob­lem­at­ic situ­ation with far-reach­ing implications. 

While the US inter­net, rel­at­ive to China, seems to be in free fall, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion attemp­ted to strike back against China by tar­get­ing the Chinese social media app TikTok.

On one hand, with 100 mil­lion Americans using the app reg­u­larly, TikTok rep­res­ents a vibrant hub of all kinds of speech — some that’s polit­ic­al, and much that isn’t — and to kill it off would rep­res­ent a dire sup­pres­sion of speech. That Trump’s decision appears to have been influ­enced by a recent stunt in which TikTok users registered en masse for one of his ral­lies and then no-showed only under­scores the dangers of hav­ing nation­al tech policy set by a thin-skinned strong­man.”
Source: How the forced sale of TikTok could splinter the internet

It’s import­ant to note that the inter­net might not be as stable as some think:

Over 99 per cent of all glob­al inter­net com­mu­nic­a­tions are facil­it­ated by an impress­ive web of under­sea cables, con­nect­ing all corners of the world. A sub­mar­ine delib­er­ately des­troy­ing one of these under­sea cables at a hard to reach place could bring down parts of the inter­net for weeks, and so all the sys­tems that rely upon it.”
Source: The splin­ter­net

And it would be a mis­take to think that China and the U.S. are the only key play­ers in this glob­al power struggle.

Russia is reportedly exper­i­ment­ing with find­ing ways to isol­ate its inter­net from the rest of the world.

Many Russians fear that the Russian author­it­ies will use the pan­dem­ic to increase cyber-sur­veil­lance of the pop­u­la­tion. QR-codes already restrict free­dom of move­ment. Russia has been work­ing on the pos­sib­il­ity to close the coun­try off by cre­at­ing a ‘sov­er­eign Ru-net’, look­ing at the Chinese example.”
Source: Is tight­en­ing con­trol via ‘Sovereign Splinternet’ in Russia possible?

As an extreme example, North Korea is already oper­at­ing their own fully state-con­trolled splinternet.

Twenty years ago, North Korea built, based on the same inter­net pro­to­cols, its nation­al intranet, known as Kwangmyong, or bright light: like the inter­net as we know it, its con­tent is access­ible via web browsers, has an intern­al search engine, and offers e‑mail and news­group ser­vices. Only for­eign­ers and a small num­ber of gov­ern­ment offi­cials, aca­dem­ics, and elites are allowed to use the glob­al inter­net in North Korea, mak­ing Kwangmyong, a free ser­vice for pub­lic use, the only net­work avail­able to the vast major­ity of North Korean cit­izens… which is mon­itored by the gov­ern­ment.”
Source: Understanding the splin­ter­net: Can the world ever be truly global?

Europe is by no means mak­ing itself more inclus­ive, either. Forcing GDPR upon the inter­na­tion­al com­munity might encour­age more nations and regions to enact far-reach­ing legis­la­tion affect­ing the internet.

The European Union’s sweep­ing data pri­vacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), sent many com­pan­ies scram­bling to come into com­pli­ance (or at least attempt to) pri­or to its imple­ment­a­tion in May 2018. The EU law covered EU cit­izens’ data any­where in the world, mean­ing com­pan­ies glob­ally would have to com­ply or face fines up to 20 mil­lion euro or 2% of their annu­al glob­al turnover (or rev­en­ue) per viol­a­tion, whichever is the great­er amount.”
Source: How GDPR Is Impacting Business and What to Expect in 2020

And Europe isn’t pre­cisely doing itself any favours, either. The approv­al of the con­tro­ver­sial Copyright Directive has since been described as a “dark day for the internet”.

Despite set­backs, the most con­tro­ver­sial clauses in the Copyright Directive — Article 11 or the ‘link tax’ and Article 13 or the ‘upload fil­ter’ — have remained largely intact. Article 11 lets pub­lish­ers charge plat­forms like Google News when they dis­play snip­pets of news stor­ies, while Article 13 (renamed Article 17 in the most recent draft of the legis­la­tion) gives sites like YouTube new duties to stop users from upload­ing copy­righted con­tent. In both cases, crit­ics say these well-inten­tioned laws will cre­ate trouble. Article 13, for example, could lead to the intro­duc­tion of “upload fil­ters” that will scan all user con­tent before it’s uploaded to sites to remove copy­righted mater­i­al. The law does not expli­citly call for such fil­ters, but crit­ics say it will be an inev­it­ab­il­ity as sites seek to avoid pen­al­ties.”
Source: Europe’s con­tro­ver­sial over­haul of online copy­right receives final approval

In many ways, it makes sense to argue that the splin­ter­net is already upon us — and that we, if we still believe in the idea of one inter­net, must act now to sal­vage whatever we can of what remains of net neut­ral­ity and the idea of free­dom of speech for everyone.

As the web becomes more splintered and inform­a­tion more con­trolled across the globe, we risk the deteri­or­a­tion of demo­crat­ic sys­tems, the cor­rup­tion of free mar­kets and fur­ther cyber mis­in­form­a­tion cam­paigns. We must act now to save a free and open inter­net from cen­sor­ship and inter­na­tion­al man­oeuv­ring before his­tory is bound to repeat itself.”
Source: The ‘splin­ter­net’ is already here

One might reas­on­ably argue that the inter­net has always been splintered; the inter­net has nev­er been one inter­net.

One could even go so far as to make the case that striv­ing for one inter­net is cul­tur­al imper­i­al­ism.

It’s an unpop­u­lar opin­ion, but the US and British tech­no­lo­gists who cre­ated the inter­net and the web, respect­ively — as well as the hip­pies who artic­u­lated the early “inform­a­tion wants to be free” eth­os — were cul­tur­al imper­i­al­ists and free-speech fun­da­ment­al­ists.”
Source: How I learned to stop wor­ry­ing and love the splinternet

Is the dream of a single inter­net con­nect­ing the glob­al com­munity on fair and open grounds a naïve pipe dream?

Or are we just mani­fest­ing a breed­ing ground for social divi­sion and crim­in­al activ­ity? Is the inter­net merely an amp­li­fic­a­tion cham­ber for the tycoons of mass reach and the silent miners?

[…] everything we do on the net­work is mon­itored and sur­veilled by both gov­ern­ments and the huge cor­por­a­tions that now dom­in­ate cyber­space. (If you want to see the com­mer­cial side of this in action, install Ghostery in your browser and see who’s snoop­ing on you as you surf.) Internet users are assailed by spam, phish­ing, mal­ware, fraud and iden­tity theft. Corporate and gov­ern­ment data­bases are routinely hacked and huge troves of per­son­al data, cred­it card and bank account details are stolen and offered for sale in the shad­ows of the so-called “dark web”. Companies – and pub­lic insti­tu­tions such as hos­pit­als – are increas­ingly black­mailed by ransom­ware attacks, which make their essen­tial IT sys­tems unus­able unless they pay a ransom. Cybercrime has already reached alarm­ing levels and, because it largely goes unpun­ished, will con­tin­ue to grow – which is why in some soci­et­ies old-style phys­ic­al crime is redu­cing as prac­ti­tion­ers move to the much safer and more luc­rat­ive online vari­ety.”
Source: Has the inter­net become a failed state?

And we still haven’t even scratched the sur­face of the poten­tial chal­lenges we face regard­ing big data and integrity.

Google could be buy­ing your med­ic­al data without your know­ledge to sell it on to insur­ance com­pan­ies. Perhaps you’ve restric­ted your Facebook pri­vacy set­tings, but Facebook can still track you across oth­er web­sites. Maybe you identi­fy as a gender or eth­nic group that is served dif­fer­ent adverts because an algorithm determ­ines that you’re not appro­pri­ate for cer­tain jobs or hous­ing and cred­it options. Even the news you read online may be delib­er­ately mis­lead­ing or dis­hon­est, in the hope of manip­u­lat­ing your polit­ic­al opin­ions.”
Source: Tim Berners-Lee’s plan to save the inter­net is admir­able, but doomed to fail

The crit­ics, the pess­im­ists, can’t just be ignored; they make a wide range of sol­id points that need to be taken seriously.

The ori­gin­al idea, as described by its many evan­gel­ists, was that the inter­net would demo­crat­ise the good and dis­rupt the bad. It would get rid of the gate­keep­ers, do away with nation­al bound­ar­ies — and all this would rad­ic­ally change soci­ety for the bet­ter. […] Rather than pro­mot­ing eco­nom­ic fair­ness, it is the cent­ral reas­on for the grow­ing gulf between rich and poor and the hol­low­ing out of the middle class. Rather than mak­ing us wealth­i­er, the so-called shar­ing eco­nomy is mak­ing us poorer. Rather than cre­at­ing more jobs, auto­ma­tion is des­troy­ing jobs. And rather than increas­ing com­pet­i­tion, it has cre­ated immensely power­ful new glob­al mono­pol­ies like Google
and Facebook.”
Source: The Internet Has Failed Us

Whether the idea of a single inter­net — or the lack there­of — holds the keys to a bet­ter tomor­row, we can­not know. 

Still, while the inter­net might nev­er have been “one inter­net”, there has been some open­ness, free­dom, and matur­ity. If noth­ing else, this is some­thing that we still stand to lose.

The oper­a­tion of the inter­net depends on the coördin­a­tion of infra­struc­ture like cables, pro­tocol suites, and actu­al applic­a­tions in people’s daily lives. The main goal of inter­net gov­ernance is to keep the coördin­a­tion of these three divi­sions. Although there are dif­fer­ences among coun­tries in regard of stand­ards and man­age­ment of infra­struc­ture and pro­tocol suites, a gen­er­ally mature gov­ernance sys­tem has been formed.”
Source: Washington inflames cyber-balkan­isa­tion and splin­ter­net with politi­cised moves

Should we con­tin­ue to fight for one web? Should we con­tin­ue to fight for an open and neut­ral web? Or was it just a naïve idea to begin with?

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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