The founding promise of the digital world was broad connectivity where information could flow freely. But as some governments take steps to filter (or completely block) access to the internet, and paid subscription models make access to reliable information a luxury, we now have a splintered internet rather than a single world wide web.
Twenty years ago, the internet emerged as a global space where information was shared freely. Now, everyone has a different idea of how our global information superhighway ought to be regulated, and by whom.
Nation-scale internet censorship is most closely associated with China’s “great firewall.” The Chinese government aggressively monitors the internet and removes information that doesn’t meet its political standards. At times of political unrest, as during widespread riots in Xinjiang in 2009, China has completely shut down access to the internet.
China’s leadership believes its restrictive model contributes to stability—and is open to exporting that approach to the rest of the world. “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber-development,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping at China’s second World Internet Conference in 2015.
In 2019, we saw ample signs of nations learning from the Chinese playbook: There were nearly 130 documented internet shutdowns in 29 countries between January and July 2019, according to the advocacy group Access Now. Those include a shutdown in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after an alleged election hijacking effort, and India’s internet blackout in Kashmir—the longest ever in a democracy.
Splinternets—the various versions of a now fractured internet—aren’t just the product of blocking free access to the internet; sometimes it’s enough to simply increase the barriers to finding reliable information. Those can be technical roadblocks—as in a censorship regime that doesn’t remove websites, but knows the average user won’t have the knowledge or time to connect through a VPN to reach unfiltered information—or they can be financial ones.
Even in nations with unrestricted internet access, the business model for many online creators is shifting to paid subscriptions. Creators deserve to be paid for their work, but we haven’t begun to wrestle with the implications of a media ecosystem in which the wealthy can afford to consume the news and entertainment they wish, and others cannot.
We’re already starting to see evidence of this classist dynamic in online gaming: “Children are scorned in games such as Fortnite if they are seen to wear the ‘default skin’ (the free avatar they receive at the start of the game),” a report by the Children’s Commissioner of the U.K. found. “Children say they feel embarrassed if they cannot afford new ‘skins,’ because then their friends see them as poor.”
For governments dealing with social unrest, the playbook increasingly includes trying to disrupt the digital tools activists use to organize. If it becomes clear that leaders can follow that playbook with impunity, expect it to be increasingly adopted by democratic governments.
Mitigating the impacts of political and financial splinternets will require coming to a broad, international consensus about how human rights apply in a digital age: Is there a fundamental human right to connect freely? Is blocking access to the internet a war crime? If a video, meme, or report is illegal in one country but protected in another, how should ISPs respond?
As nations start to implement 5G infrastructure, questions of network interoperability will become increasingly relevant. If tensions between the U.S. and China continue, there’s a risk that components built with American technology will not be compatible with those built by Chinese firms. That could embed the fracturing of the web at a hardware level, making it more difficult to combat in the future.
Access Now, China’s government, Freedom House, Software Freedom Law Centre (India).
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