The rise of ‘splinternet’ amid heightened nationalism

Internet is really just the new frontier of national security
24 February 2021

The rise of ‘splinternet’ amid heightened nationalism. Source: Shutterstock

  • The open web is now a mere shadow of its former self and dubbed as the ‘splinternet’.
  • Splinternet is often defined as the balkanization of the net, as nations try to preserve their sovereign identities and economic interest

The era of fragmented and divided internet is now upon us. As cyberspace is getting more controlled and regulated by different countries, the“splinternet,” is slowly becoming a common reality. Now, the “World Wide Web” is no longer a free and open internet, its limits are determined by national or regional borders.

Made mainstream by nations like China and Russia who have been rapidly increasing their internet oversight, digital authoritarianism is now 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.