Is the dream of one global internet still alive?
Increasingly, moves by governments to filter and restrict content are threatening to fragment the system created with the promise of connecting the world with a largely unified body of content.
China for years has walled off some western services, and the fragmentation may be accelerating with regulations being imposed elsewhere, say analysts. This is leading to a “splinternet,” a term circulated for a decade or more but gaining more traction in recent months.
“The internet is already fragmented in material ways, but each regulator around the world thinks they know how to fix the internet,” said Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. “I think we will see a tsunami of regulations that will lead to a further splintering of the internet.”
The New Zealand Christchurch mosques massacre livestreamed online heightened the sense of urgency in some countries, with debates in the U.S. and E.U. on curbing incitement to violence. A new Australian law could jail social media executives for failing to take down violent extremist content quickly. And a proposal unveiled in Britain could make executives personally liable for harmful content posted on social platforms. Similar ideas have been discussed by lawmakers in Washington.
These moves come as Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has called for a “common global framework” of internet rules. But free-speech defenders warn it would be dangerous to allow governments to regulate online content, even if social media are struggling.
The U.K. proposal “is a very bad look for a rights-respecting democracy,” said R. David Edelman, a former White House technology adviser who now heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s project on technology, the economy and national security. “It would place the U.K. toward the far end of the internet censorship spectrum.”
Elsewhere, critics pounced on a bill in Singapore to ban “fake news,” calling it a thinly veiled attempt at censorship. “It is not up to the government to arbitrarily determine what is and is not true,” said Daniel Bastard of the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. “In its current form, this Orwellian law establishes nothing less than a ‘ministry of truth’ that would be free to silence independent voices and impose the ruling party’s line.”
According to human rights watchdog Freedom House, at least 17 countries approved or proposed laws to restrict online media in the name of fighting “fake news” and manipulation, and 13 countries prosecuted internet users for spreading “false” information.
Goldman argued that the European Union’s General Protection Data Regulation, aimed at improving online privacy, “has been a major milestone in splintering the internet.” It has led to numerous websites including news sites cut off from Europe, he said.
The E.U. copyright directive approved last month, aimed at protecting creators, could also result in fragmentation of online information, said Danny O’Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Whatever internet companies and organizations do to comply with 27 or more national laws—from dropping links to European news sites entirely… will be challenged by one rights-holder faction or another,” O’Brien said in a blog post.
The multitude of proposed rules around the world raise the prospect of varying versions of the internet depending on location, with small services potentially blocking out some countries.
In addition to online content measures, several countries including India and Brazil are enforcing “data localization” requirements, which could limit the availability of services such as e-commerce and banking. “More nation-states are trying to territorialize information flows and assert control of those services,” said Milton Mueller, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor and co-founder of the Internet Governance Project of analysts.
The fragmentation could have profound consequences both in terms of economics and human rights, according to Mueller. “The bypassing of these national boundaries when the internet got started was what was revolutionary and led to the expansion of new services,” he said. “There is now an assertion of national sovereignty and national control, going against globalization and the ability of people to freely interact with each other.”
The “data nationalization” movement gained momentum after the 2013 revelations on surveillance from national security contractor Edward Snowden. This gave some governments “an excuse to impose far greater state control” of their networks, said Edelman.
Edelman maintained the Snowden revelations represented a turning point because they “ruptured some of the faith in a global consensus” about the internet.
Australia’s efforts to curb content and require access to encrypted devices could prompt some firms to think twice about doing business there, said Edelman. “The potential is there for companies to simply exit the Australian market,” he said.
Amy Webb, a New York University professor and founder of the Future Today Institute, said the trend toward Balkanization is growing, posing challenges for online services. “Compliance is going to become more and more difficult for companies who do business in more than one location, which could stifle growth and restrict the flow of meaningful, credible information,” Webb said.
Ira Magaziner, a former policy adviser to president Bill Clinton who helped negotiate deals to bring the internet around the world, said he is optimistic that countries will find ways to keep the internet from fragmenting. “We are going through a period where there are a lot of questions and a lot of forces for disintegration,” Magaziner said, while noting that countries cutting off data will be hurting themselves. “If the advantages are large enough, it will hang together,” he said.