How I learned to stop worrying and love the splinternet

The web was never going to be worldwide. The idea of one single global internet is an obsolete fantasy.

global network puzzle pieces
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Have you heard the one about the “splinternet”? It’s the idea that the internet could someday be split into different national or regional mini-internets.

It’s usually talked about as something that could happen someday, or that is beginning to happen.

I’ve got news for you: It’s already happened. The splinternet is here.

It’s time to stop pretending that the ever-increasing “cyber-balkanization” of the internet will ever be reversed.

Who and what is splintering the internet?

In 1996, John Perry Barlow penned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”

This naive and now-cringeworthy screed said, in part, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” He continued: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

The response by Governments of the Industrial World: “Challenge accepted.”

Barlow’s free-speech utopia never happened, and never will. Since Barlow’s declaration, the division of the global internet into separate, incompatible and walled-off mini-internets has increased, and it will continue to do so.

Here are the actors and forces that have already splintered the internet into many internets.

China

The famous “Great Firewall of China” is a collection of laws, policies and technologies that block foreign information and censor what users of the Chinese internet can see. It’s optimized for state surveillance (as opposed to America’s internet, which is optimized for corporate surveillance).

The Chinese internet is completely different in form, function and content from the U.S. internet. The Chinese internet is unrecognizable to you and me.

Chinese censorship of words and pictures is nearly total. China’s censors delete objectionable content automatically and in real time. Post the words “Winnie the Pooh” on Weibo and they are deleted before anyone can see them. (Critics mock Chinese President Xi by saying he looks like Winnie the Pooh.) The person who posted the censored content isn’t informed of the censorship and believes the post was successful. But the poster’s followers never see it.

China’s internet is an internet without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, Flickr or Tinder. It has no YouTube. In fact, the list of blocked websites on the Chinese internet is basically all the websites and internet services you and I use every day.

Oracle said this week that the Chinese internet is designed more like an intranet. China can disconnect from the other internets at will and still operate its own internet.

Not only has China used vast technological sophistication to create a separate Chinese internet, but now it’s exporting those technologies to Africa as well.

Russia

In the last two years, Russian authorities have essentially outlawed online anonymity and private communications. They’ve blocked encrypted message services like Telegram. VPNs, internet filtering sites and even sites giving how-to instructions on how to access blocked websites are banned on the Russian internet.

And the Russian internet is aggressively censored. Google now censors searches on behalf of the Russian government.

Even my personal blog is blocked in Russia, a fact I learned while researching this column.

All non-Russian news sites have to be registered as foreign agents in Russia.

And the Russian state’s vast and aggressive disinformation programs strive to pollute the outside-Russia internet with disinformation, while simultaneously polluting the inside-Russia internet with propaganda that benefits the ruling class. (I detailed in this space the opposing messages about 5G technology promulgated by the Russian state inside and outside Russia.)

Russia has even created its own, government-controlled alternative domain name system (DNS).

The European Union

EU regulations prioritize privacy over freedom of expression. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the latest splintering factor. I spend a lot of time in Europe, and the experience of using the internet is very different there. The overwhelming majority of U.S. news websites are blocked in Europe, citing GDPR rules. The web in the EU spams you mercilessly with cookie warnings that nobody reads.

Europe’s “right to be forgotten” laws require search engines like Google to become increasingly inaccurate and non-representative of what’s actually on the internet.

And the EU’s new Copyright Directive will solidify and further separate the European internet form the other internets.

Despotic governments

Eritrea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam and Myanmar also have censorship regimes so extreme that they constitute separate, national internets.

In fact, Freedom House’s rankings on internet freedom can be used as a proxy for the degree to which each national internet deviates from the U.S. internet.

Facebook

A huge number of people use Facebook primarily or exclusively when they are on the internet. Facebook censors according to local laws and dictates, and so Facebook is very different in each country.

Google

Google is one of the leading advocates and practitioners of algorithmic personalization and local customization. As a result, Google sites like YouTube are completely different in different countries. Trending and recommended videos are selected according to local or national languages, personalities and preferences, so that each country where YouTube is allowed in has its own local version of YouTube.

Why the splinternet is not the end of the world (wide web)

It’s an unpopular opinion, but the U.S. 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. The idea that freedom of expression is the highest value is a very American idea, which the internet utopians of the ’90s hoped they could impose on the world.

They couldn’t. It turns out that religious countries don’t want blasphemy and pornography flooding in from the rest of the world. Governments don’t want insurgents using the internet to overthrow democracies. Democracies don’t want fake news causing riots. China doesn’t want people promoting multiparty democracy. Russia doesn’t want Western news about Russian oligarchs. And Americans don’t want Russia meddling in their elections (nor does Russia want America meddling with its meddling).

Here’s another unpopular perspective: Nations that have gone the furthest to isolate their national internets from the international internet are in a far better position to survive all-out cyberwar than the countries (like the U.S.) that are naively pushing for a single global internet.

It’s time to stop pretending that the web is worldwide. It’s never has been. It’s not now. And it never will be. The global internet is a delusion; the splinternet is reality. It’s merely the result of national governments extending their rule to cyberspace, which has always been inevitable.

I’m sorry, John Perry Barlow, but the Governments of the Industrial World are not going to leave us alone.

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