The ‘splinternet’ is becoming commonplace

The ‘splinternet’ is becoming commonplace. Source: Shutterstock

The ‘splinternet’ pervades both the East and West

  • The internet or ‘splinternet’, is coming apart more than ever.
  • As nations try to preserve their sovereign identities and economic interest, the balkanization of the net takes place.
  • China and Russia maybe two of the biggest internet disruptors, but they are by no means the only ones.

A recent fight over the news in Australia may have taken some by a surprise but it is just a relatively small part of the clash between tech and governments, which has largely been focused on issues such as censorship, privacy, and competition. As regulators around the world gather momentum in reining big tech companies, internet services worldwide slowly began to fracture, creating a ‘splinternet’ as it grasps different regulations from countries around the world. 

Years ago, China and Russia began increasing their internet oversight rapidly, an action that was watched but not followed by many. Today, digital authoritarianism is almost common in many other countries. This ‘split’ is caused by global politics, national security, religion, and more. At its core and original form, the internet transcended borders and allowed people unfettered access to virtually everything. 

The splinternet, however, limits citizens’ access to data, forces businesses to keep data within borders, and even changes how they operate within a state. Splinternet is often defined as the balkanization of the net, as nations try to preserve their sovereign identities and economic interests. More than other reasons, trade disputes and concerns about the market dominance of certain global tech companies have been the main threats that lead to regulatory crackdowns all over the world. A recent report by CNN reckons “the cracks only appear to be getting deeper”.

Recent ‘splinternet’ occurrence

Take Facebook and the Australian government’s most recent move. In an effort to have tech giants pay publishers for news, the government in Australia had proposed a law that had eventually pushed Facebook to its edge. The social media giant stopped showing links from news outlets to its Australian users and even users outside the country could no longer access content from Australian news outlets. 

Though the move by Facebook was a temporary one, it ran against the very premise of the internet serving as a tool for the free flow of information globally. In Southeast Asia too, when India warned Twitter that it was “welcome to do business” but “must also respect Indian laws,” Twitter sought a middle ground by withholding some accounts that were using what the government called “incendiary and baseless” hashtags which means those accounts weren’t visible within the country but could still be accessed outside.

The splinternet game is different in China, where the government’s online censorship apparatus known as the Great Firewall has locked Western tech companies out for decades. Facebook and Google had both sought to make concessions to be allowed in but often end with little to no success. Google in particular had shut down its Google News service in Spain after the country passed a similar law to the one Australia is now contemplating. In Australia, too, the search engine behemoth had threatened to pull its services out of the country over the same media law before eventually giving in and signing deals with some of the country’s top publishers.

It is tough to say that if anyone has figured out the policing of the internet. However, there are bodies that are working on it and a coalition called the Global Network Initiative has worked for years to set a code of conduct for tech and telecom companies to protect online speech and privacy globally. Even groups including Article 19, which works on promoting freedom of expression, and Facebook’s Oversight Board have also worked on resolution mechanisms for people around the world to challenge internet companies’ decisions.

For the consumer, the biggest impact of splinternet is the limited access to information. As rules and policies lead to rising costs of businesses, it may force some to move away from a country entirely. Of course, compartmentalization means more ways to control supply and demand, and possibly stifle competitors, but ultimately, splinternets will cause more harm than good. Big tech companies will find it impossible to comply with every legal permutation. Existing filter bubbles will expand to fit geographic borders. All this will continue to unfold slowly and it may just be tough to return to the freewheeling web of before.