Splinternet refers to how the internet is fragmented, divided, separated, blocked, boxed in, or otherwise segmented.
For both nation states and corporations, there is money and control to be gained by influencing the information people can access and share, as well as the costs that are paid for this access.
The idea of a splinternet isn’t new, nor is the problem. But recent developments are likely to improve segmentation and bring it back in a new light.
Read more: Meta has just been fined A$1.9 billion for keeping EU data in the US. But why should users care where the data is stored?
Internet as a whole
The central question is whether we have one Internet for all or whether we have many.
Think about how we refer to things like the sky or the sea or the economy. Though these things are conceptually unique, we often saw only one perspective: a part of the whole that isn’t complete, but that we nonetheless directly experience. This also applies to the Internet.
Much of the internet is what is known as the deep web. These are the parts that search engines and web crawlers generally don’t go to. Estimates vary, but a rule of thumb is that roughly 70% of the web is deep.
Despite the name and the anxious news it brings to some industries, the deep web is mostly benign. Refers to parts of the web that access is restricted in some way.
Your personal email is part of the deep web, no matter how bad your password is, it requires your permission to access. So do your Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive accounts. If your business or school has its own servers, they are part of the deep web they are connected to, but not publicly accessible by default (hopefully).
Read more: Deep and dark search: Building a Google for the less visible parts of the web
We can extend this to things like multiplayer video game experience, most social media platforms and much more. Yes, there are parts that live up to the ominous name, but most of the deep web is just stuff that requires password access.
The Internet changes, too, connections go live, cables break or satellites fail, people bring their new Internet of Things devices (such as smart refrigerators and doorbells) online, or accidentally open computer ports to the network.
But because so much of the web is shaped by our individual access, we all have our own perspectives on what it’s like to use the internet. Just like being under the sky, our local experience is different from others. No one can see the full picture.
A fractured Internet ready to fracture even more
Was there ever only one Internet? Certainly the US research computer network called ARPANET in the 1960s was clear, unobtrusive, and unfractured.
Alongside this, in the 1960s and 1970s, the governments of the Soviet Union and Chile also worked on similar network projects called OGAS and CyberSyn respectively. These systems were proto-internets that could have expanded significantly and had themes that resonate today OGAS was heavily policed by the KGB and CyberSyn was a social experiment destroyed in a far-right coup.
Each was very clearly separate, each was a fragmented computer network that relied on government support to succeed, and the ARPANET was the only one that succeeded due to its significant government funding. It was the kernel that would become the foundation of the Internet, and it was Tim Berners-Lee’s work on HTML at CERN that became the foundation of the web we have today, and something that he tries to protect.
Today we can see that the unified internet has given way to a fractured internet, ready to fracture even more.
Many countries actually already have their own Internets. These are still technically connected to the rest of the internet, but are subject to such distinct policies, regulations, and costs that they are starkly different for users.
For example, Russia maintains Soviet-era-style surveillance of the internet, and it’s far from alone in doing so thanks to Xi Jinping, now there’s China’s great firewall.
Surveillance is not the only barrier to Internet use, with harassment, abuse, censorship, access taxation and pricing, and similar Internet controls being a major problem in many countries.
Content controls aren’t bad per se, it’s easy to think of content that most people wish didn’t exist. However, these national regulations lead to a fragmentation of the Internet experience depending on the country you are in.
Indeed, every single country has local factors that shape the Internet experience, from language to law to culture to censorship.
While this can be overcome by tools such as VPNs (virtual private networks) or switching to blockchain networks, in practice these are individual solutions that only a small percentage of people use and do not represent a stable solution.
They were already on Splinternet
In short, it doesn’t fix it for those who aren’t technically savvy, and it doesn’t fix problems with commercial services. Even without censoring governments, problems remain. In 2021, Facebook shut down Australian news content as a protest against the news media bargaining code, leading to potential change in the industry.
Before that, organizations like Wikipedia and Google protested the repeal of net neutrality provisions in the US in 2017 following previous campaigns.
Read more: Australia’s Facebook news block shows how tech giants are engulfing the web
Facebook (now known as Meta) attempted to create an internet walled garden in India called Free Basics, which led to a massive protest against corporate control in late 2015 and early 2016. Today, violations of the Metas’ EU law are putting its business model in the territory at risk.
This broad shift has been described in the past by my colleague Mark Andrejevic in 2007 as a digital fence where states and commercial interests increasingly segment, separate and restrict what is accessible on the Internet.
The uneven overlap of national economies and regulations will interact strangely with digital services that cross multiple borders. Further reductions in net neutrality will open the door to restrictive agreements with Internet service providers, price discrimination and lock-in agreements with content providers.
The current diversity of experiences on the internet will see user experiences and access continue to diverge. As internet-based businesses increasingly rely on users’ exclusive access for tracking and advertising, as services and ISPs overcome declining revenues with lock-in agreements, and as government policies change, we will see that fragmentation will continue.
The splinternet isn’t all that different from what we already have. But it represents an Internet that is even less global, less deliberative, less equitable, and less unified than we have today.
Read more: Tim Berners-Lee’s plan to save the internet: Give us back control of our data
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