Back in the old days (before COVID-19), I grandly announced that the dreaded “splinternet” had arrived. And I made peace with the fact.
The idea of the splinternet is simple: Instead of the single, global, open Internet envisioned by early network pioneers, we now have multiple, disconnected Internets.
Exhibit A to my argument was the successful isolation of China by the Chinese government's so-called "Great Firewall of China," as well as aggressive internet censorship. The Chinese government not only censors domestically, but also takes advantage of the lack of controls abroad to censor globally and spread pro-Beijing propaganda and disinformation. For example, pendant les Jeux olympiques de Pékin, des milliers de faux comptes et de robots super actifs ont inondé les commentaires de tout utilisateur de Twitter éminent (and compris moi-même) criticize les Jeux olympiques ou le bilan du gouvernement chinois en matière de human rights. Twitter later removed the accounts.
China bans foreign social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat and many others, while Chinese-owned TikTok is not banned abroad. (A lot of people don't know that even TikTok is banned in China, but ByteDance's Chinese alternative Douyin is allowed and of course heavily censored by Beijing.)
The experience of using the so-called Internet in China is totally different from using it outside of China.
I have also written about Russia's growing separation from the global Internet and its aggressive blocking of not only websites, but also messaging services like Telegram, VPN and other resources.
Other governments - those of North Korea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam and Myanmar - also maintain these essentially national intranets.
Why is splinternet even more fragmented now?
While Russia was headed for a China-like separation for years, that nation's invasion of Ukraine, the crushing sanctions that followed, and the Russian government's backlash essentially finished the job of creating a vastly separate Russian Internet.
Silicon Valley companies, including Apple, Google, Airbnb and many others, have essentially withdrawn from Russia. Microsoft has scaled back operations and blocked Windows downloads in Russia.
And while foreign tech companies pull, Russian regulators push: The Russian government has banned Twitter, Facebook, and most outside media websites. Google's Russian subsidiary filed for bankruptcy this month because Moscow's moves made it impossible to do business in the country.
The Russian government had tried to separate this country from the rest, but the conflict in Ukraine has accelerated and reinforced this trend.
The top two tech buzzwords of the past year describe platforms that would most likely create additional splinters in the web: the "metaverse" and "Web3."
Nina Xiang's book "Parallel Metaverses" convincingly argues that the so-called "metaverse" will actually turn out to be "many metaverses existing in parallel and sharing characteristics of today's Internet such as" market dominance, monopolistic practices, walls garden and manipulation of user data. »
(I made similar arguments a few months ago.)
And in the wake of Russia's disconnection from the global Internet, Web3 advocates have spoken out by adding splinternet circumvention to the list of Web3 benefits. One such proponent claims that “Web3 applications based on decentralized public blockchains like Ethereum, Avalanche or Solana are open to all” and therefore “unreprehensible”.
He is impressively naive. Uncensorable, perhaps. Lockable, of course. More importantly, public blockchains expose users to authoritarian governments, which could threaten anyone who uses them with jail time.
The article goes on to link social media “ownership” to censorship and splinternet, which is nonsense. China and other authoritarian regimes ban Twitter and Facebook because they allow free speech, not because they are owned by billionaires.
The central flaw in the entire defense of Web3 is the inconceivable notion that everyone: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Cisco, and thousands of other companies; democratic and authoritarian governments of all kinds; and billions of compliant users - will follow the vague, insecure and risky Web3 vision of the minority of advocates.
In reality, Web3 is an agent of further fragmentation, as some users will use blockchain, tokenized and distributed applications instead of conventional applications, and the majority will continue to use the so-called Web2. Web3 will not replace the web, it will create an alternative web: the very definition of splinternet.
The other growing trend is increasing legal control over what is allowed within political borders. An example that comes to mind here in Europe (I'm in France at the moment) is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and similar legislation in Europe. The laudable goals of protecting user privacy have placed the burden on individual global websites, many of which have found that it is not worth the burden. As a result, a large number of news sites are blocked in Europe: the menu of news sources is different inside and outside Europe. And there are many other examples.
To counteract the splinternet trend, the United States released a global declaration of resistance to "digital authoritarianism" in April, a document signed by 61 countries seeking an "open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure" Internet. Good luck with that, 61 countries.
The document basically forces governments that oppose the splinternet to make a non-binding commitment to the goals of a single open internet, without impacting most nations, including those that actively splinter the internet.
Will these empty gestures convince China, Russia and other breakaway intellectual property nations to join the global open Internet? Are they going to impose a single metaverse on all companies and all countries? Will they ban Web3 or require everyone to continue using the same technologies?
No, they won't do any of that.
How to think about Splinternet in the future
It's a good idea to assume that splinternet is here to stay and that the split will continue.
The biggest problem is that there are at least a few billion people who don't have access to anything like the global Internet. And it is a violation of their rights (especially article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
Another problem is that when knowledge is blocked, interaction is blocked and business is blocked. It makes the world smaller for everyone.
Filter bubbles, walled gardens, authoritarian censorship and other factors that lead people down dead ends on the Internet impose undesirable limits on the flow of information, to everyone's detriment.
What companies can do is work hard to establish a presence within all the closed "internets" that make sense to that company, and not assume that publishing on the web means the world is there.
From now on, we should abandon the chimerical dream of a global Internet. It was never going to happen. The metaverse will not save us. And neither does Web3.
Instead, accept the harsh reality that there are many Internet networks, and accessing those minds and markets will take a lot of work.
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