The traditional internet is threatened by the splinternet. The term describes the fragmentation of the Internet into competing technospheres. Nation states are increasingly imposing restrictions that put pressure on the internet governance system established decades ago.
Autocratic regimes reshape global norms and standards. For example, in 2019 Russia introduced the Sovereign Law on the Internet. This allows the Kremlin to cut connections to the global web “in case of emergency”. However, Russia is not alone in causing the splinternet.
Seventy percent of global internet shutdowns in 2020 occurred in India, according to India time. In 2021, the Nigerian government suspended Twitter’s operations in the country, just two days after the platform deleted a tweet from President Buhari for violating its rules.
These countries have competing ideological models for the internet that include open, prescriptive, authoritarian, and hybrid splinternet models. Each of these patterns adds to the divide of the internet, creating a more diverse splinternet. So how do they differ?
The open model focuses on maintaining the original idea of the Internet. It is adopted by the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. The set of standards on which it is based is designed to avoid centralized control.
This Internet architecture enables interoperability and communication between different devices and networks. It allows anyone to add new tools and services without permission.
This structure still stands today. The cost is that Big Tech now wields significant influence over the internet. For example, Apple is increasingly setting privacy standards. Its App Tracking Transparency feature gives users better control over their data.
Apple has also acted as a gatekeeper when setting rules on who can access its App Store. Game developers and regulators are increasingly challenging Apple, arguing it can stifle competition. During the Epic Games v. Apple lawsuit in 2021, Fortnite maker Epic Games claimed that Apple’s App Store practices were monopolistic.
Europe has a different model with a more prescriptive approach. This adds to the idea of the splinternet because it differs from the laissez-faire attitudes of the open model. The European normative model shares most of the principles that underpin the open internet. At the same time, it places greater emphasis on human rights-based regulation.
The EU has launched regulatory initiatives such as the Digital Markets Act to prevent abuse of market power and ensure secure data processing. The EU also wants to build a European cloud to strengthen European data sovereignty and counter market dominance by non-European providers.
Some of the proposed legislation could result in data localization. This may limit many routine data flows from the EU to the US, China, India and other non-EU countries.
Another aspect of the splinternet is found in several authoritarian states. The authoritarian model aspires to assert its control over the fundamental architecture of the Internet. China is the model child of the authoritarian model. However, it is becoming increasingly attractive to other countries seeking to intervene in the digital sphere, such as Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The authoritarian model allows governments to extend their grip on economic and social actors. Beijing’s crackdown on its tech sector can be seen through this lens. For example, Chinese authorities have targeted tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and Meituan to assert control over the web. This has been driven by fears that they will take control of ever larger swathes of the economy.
The new Internet Protocol (new IP) proposed by Huawei represents the greatest challenge for Internet management. New IP is an Internet architecture with a top-down design. Critics fear this will allow access to all network-connected devices, making it easier to crack down on dissidents. If the new IP gains legitimacy, it could well signal the breakup of the Internet into Western and Chinese versions.
The latest iteration of splinternet is the so-called hybrid model. Countries falling into this category – such as India, Brazil, Turkey and Nigeria – avoid the full authoritarian model but do not fully embrace the idea of an open internet.
Some of them are emerging economies that are still determining the regulatory and ethical frameworks they will apply. However, their political choices could have a major influence on the future direction of international digital governance.
The great nations try to push these countries to follow their example. For example, China has become a valuable partner for emerging economies through the Digital Silk Road initiative. This provides technology investment and is part of China’s strategy to increase its power internationally. However, it may allow the leaders of these countries to impose greater censorship, allow shutdowns, and even decouple from the global internet.