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 by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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.

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 naive 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 coordination of infrastructure like cables, protocol suites, and actual applications in people’s daily lives. The main goal of internet governance is to keep the coordination 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 naive idea to begin with?

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

1 Splinternet. (2022, December 12). In Wikipedia.
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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