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Would a Splinternet Be That Bad?

The longer the international community fails to come to consensus on key Internet-related issues such as cyber norms and governance, nations are taking it upon themselves to enact domestic legislation and setting policies that protect their interests.  As a result, critics see the once “free” global Internet splintering into hamlets where countries put their own priorities ahead of the larger whole.  In this model, the Internet is still interconnected, only now governments wanting to do business in another country have to follow the Internet and data processing and handling laws of the country in which they wish to operate.  While the full splintering of the Internet has yet to materialize, it certainly appears that it may be headed in that direction.

The term “splinternet” refers to the increasingly balkanization of the Internet, where the cyber domain is dividing due to a variety of reasons to include but not limited to technology, commerce, nationalism, politics, among others.  This segmentation has increased over time as some governments recognized the harm they could suffer as a result of citizens’ unfettered access to free information.  As such, they sought to maintain rigid control over what information its geographic sovereign territory could access, process, download, or create.  This stands in direct opposition to the globalization that further connected the international community, driving commerce and intertwining economies.  Many proponents expected that these economic benefits would continue to increase, and that the international community would continue to embrace an open Internet.

However, looking at today’s realities, it clearly has not, as geopolitical economic, social, and political rivalries have logically spilled over onto the Internet making the digital world a natural reflection of the physical one.  A clear understanding of what is meant by geopolitics is necessary to better frame this situation.  Simply, geopolitics is the study of how geographical factors and economics influence the politics between nations.  Geopolitics has been an essential tenet of international relations since it was formally coined at the turn of the century, though the principles behind it have likely existed for as long as different tribes interacted with one another.  Therefore, the more globalized the Internet has become, the more it has exposed the international community to both economic opportunities as well as challenges.  While some have prospered, others have suffered, especially when it comes to global trade imbalances and global supply chain complications.

Perhaps a more significant result from Internet-enabled globalization has come from more authoritarian governments advocating for Internet sovereignty – a system of thought that asserts that a government has complete control over its portion of the Internet.  At face value, such a proposition does not seem out of the ordinary.  After all, states enjoy similar autonomy over its physical territorial boundaries,  the airspace above their territory, and the water along its coastlines.  Why shouldn’t they enjoy the same rights when it comes to the Internet?  Nations are connected via the Internet similarly to how they are by air and water.  They maintain sovereignty over their part of these domains but not the entire whole, which exists as an international commodity.

This question of Internet sovereignty lies at the very heart of the balkanization issue.  Many do not like the idea of the balkanization of the Internet, asserting that such a development would end the open Internet as we know it.  The big pushbacks against balkanization have underscored its potential for restricting innovation, causing inequality, and allowing authoritarian regimes to further abuse their power.  These critics maintain that balkanization will restrict data access, and because of this, create challenges for countries to thrive on data.  They also stress that restricting data will create education and commercial opportunity for some but not others, creating unnecessary obstacles for development.  Finally, critics readily conclude that controlling data access benefits those regimes wanting more control over their people and businesses.

The United States and many Western countries are firmly against Internet sovereignty and balkanization.  In April, the United States and 60 countries signed a non-binding declaration to resist digital authoritarianism and support an open, free, and “secure” Internet.  The gesture is admirable but largely ceremonial than practical.  In fact, there are some who believe that the United States reluctance to embrace this Internet sovereign concept has more to do with trying to keep U.S. influence over it.  U.S.-based Internet giants such as Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, for example, are large influential companies operating globally, and play to this notion of “U.S. Internet hegemony.”  It comes as little surprise that some of these companies do not have a large presence or are flat-out banned in some authoritarian countries, or else have to adjust their business activities to comply to the host government’s direction.

But the longer the international community fails to come to an agreement on how countries should operate on the Internet, the more balkanization makes sense, especially when it’s evident hostile cyber activity is outpacing the security industry. Perhaps more telling, the longer this perseveres, the more governments may see the value in setting the rules and regulations that foreign entities must follow in their respective countries when it comes to issues of data handling, privacy, and security.  There is even evidence suggesting that the European Union (EU), a usual supporter of the United States on Internet issues, may not be as firm in their resolve when it comes to Internet sovereignty.  A 2021 meeting in Davos, Switzerland, saw the EU prefer to address strategic sovereignty in the digital sphere in favor of Internet sovereignty, a minor distinction that indicates that the U.S. and EU are not in total lock-step on this issue.

So, the question remains: would a global splinternet be bad?

The status quo is not acceptable.  The current cyber threat environment is rife with state and nonstate actors bombarding the international community.  International cooperation is spotty at best, and even the most successful of joint law enforcement efforts are minor splashes in a vast ocean.  Waiting for international bodies like the United Nations to come up with a solution is not a plan of action that addresses the needs of countries today.  States autonomy over their own parts of the Internet make them accountable for the activities that originate from there.  It would no longer be acceptable for states to claim that nonstate actors committed cyber malfeasance or that an unknown actor compromised a server in their country and used that to commit an attack.  What’s more, a global splinternet may more resemble a skeleton than fractured hamlets with sovereign Internet spaces acting as the bones being tied to one another via flexible connection points that act like cartilage.  This could make things a little more difficult, but it also may make it a little more secure by mandating that activities like commerce comply with the Internet and data laws and regulations of the host country.

There are those who that would argue that Internet sovereignty is antithetical to those whose who built the Internet. That may be true, but it certainly isn’t an ideal to which governments have to comply.  The splinternet may be the natural progression of advanced technology propelling the internationally community forward too quickly without a comprehensive understanding of how to implement the technology in a cohesive manner.  And because it took off in some countries and regions and has been slow to unfold in others may be the result of this action.  Like or not, an impending global splinternet may not be the ideal, but it appears to be a reaction to the current state of affairs.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.