Understanding The 'Splinternet'

from the how-our-digital-world-fractures dept

In recent years, technologists have coined the phrase “splinternet” to describe the internet’s supposed evolution from a unified, borderless realm into a fragmented set of parallel internets, divided by national borders.

This assumes that the internet was, at one point, global in some meaningful sense. But the reality has always been more complex. From the stark digital divide for students during COVID-19 to Western companies enacting overly broad regional blocking in the name of “security,” the digital world never floated freely on a flat plane, untethered from political and geographical boundaries.

Yet, talk of a splinternet points to an important question: will the internet be more like one world (with some bumps along the way), or will it have semi-permeable borders that are tricky and expensive — perhaps even impossible — to cross?

To know whether (or how) the internet is becoming more fragmented first requires reliable methods for measuring internet fragmentation. The Daylight Security Research Lab has been working on this challenge for over a year with UC Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity.

The internet is not a singular technology. It’s an ensemble, cobbled together from a variety of complementary tools and protocols. Each protocol sits on top of the one beneath it, creating “layers” of technologies that, together, we colloquially call “the internet.” In a recent column in the New York Times, for example, Shira Ovide describes fragmentation among companies providing digital services in India. This competition happens at the “content layer,” which hosts the applications we interact with.

But this content layer locality is only one dimension of fragmentation. “Below” this layer, IPv6, an upgraded internet protocol system — the basic addressing system that allows computers to connect to the internet — rolls out unequally across the world. As older IPv4 addresses (in the style of become increasingly scarce, internet outages could hit countries with low IPv6 penetration. Upgrading to IPv6 requires private- and, in some cases, public-sector investment so this divided access to the internet will break along lines of wealth.

“Above” these technical layers, regulations like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Russian data locality laws fragment the internet at the “legal” or “social” layer. Russia’s laws require data about Russians to be stored in Russia and have enabled the Putin regime to disconnect from the wider internet as part of a “preparedness” drill. However, the GDPR has yielded a more subtle, bureaucratic flavor of fragmentation. As of 2018, about a third of major U.S. news sources blocked visitors from Europe to avoid GDPR regulations. While the policy merits of the GDPR can be debated, the regulation has undeniably made national borders matter more for the way data flows throughout the world.

Fragmentation can come at any layer of the internet stack. To capture this multifaceted reality, the Daylight Security Research Lab built a dataset to measure internet fragmentation through proxy measures based on four different layers of this stack.

Rather than revealing a world moving in one direction from “global” to “fragmented,” the research reveals a more complex reality. Internet governance decisions produce diverse types of fragmentation. Some countries may have lots of data locality laws, while their content-layer patterns align with global norms. Other countries may exhibit the opposite pattern.

Across the five layers of the stack, the research mapped these fragmentation profiles with surprising results. On the one hand, countries expected to be different were surprisingly similar. Ask what Norway has in common with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Bahrain, and someone might guess, “aside from oil, not much.” However, these very different countries have very similar, country-specific browsing habits, degrees of network non-neutrality (e.g., government or ISP interference) and work on similar infrastructures. While the specific browsing habits are almost certainly different between Norway and Saudi Arabia, the way in which they are different from the supposedly “global” internet is itself similar.

On the other hand, similar countries can have a surprisingly different internet. Per popular imagination and some recent reports, China’s model of the internet — one in which blocking is pervasive and centralized— has set a precedent that other Belt & Road countries, like Laos and Indonesia, are following. But the data challenges that assumption. In fact, China stands out from all of the seven Belt & Road countries that were analyzed. China has more data locality laws, a higher degree of content layer locality and significantly higher observed network interference.

As the shape of internet governance changes, barriers and enablers to using these services shift as well. It becomes easier to carry out speech, commerce and other digital activities in “blocs” of interoperability, and harder to move across the borders between those blocs. For an app starting today in the United States, it may be easier to block users from EU countries than to learn about and comply with EU regulation. Imagining this small-scale conflict playing out on a larger scale, regulations can (and do) produce fundamentally different experiences on the internet.

In the meantime, as you read anecdotes claiming the internet is becoming one way or another, or that changes have some good or bad effect, remember the eternal truth about any complex system: it’s complicated.

What are we to make of the weird parallels between Norway and Bahrain? And what does this multifaceted reality mean for businesses or policymakers? Our ability to answer these questions is limited by our lack of a common language for discussing the phenomena. To know what’s down the road for the web, we first need to measure it.

Nick Merrill directs the Daylight Security Research Lab at the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity. His research is focused on identifying potential harms of technology, and to help others do the same.

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Comments on “Understanding The 'Splinternet'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

While the underground itself would be fun, every underground has a big pile of shit above it and even the best underground gets permeated by the dump eventually.

Also, how likely is a strong global underground really? Let’s look at North Korea: even in the face of death/torture camps they are smuggling info over the tight sealed border. Though that may be due to stark contrast of the outside world. As in thermodynamics, they are motivated to level the information imbalance. With whole world in shit, motivation would be low. Take copyright: it’s creeping globally but there’s no anti copyright guerilla army.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Starlink

Yes, because global corporations are doing so much good for humanity. /s

Even if Star Link followed through, offended countries would first sanction Star Link, jail Musk or even point nukes at Star Link headquarters (or maybe just Musks church).

VPN will not be enough: these days already known VPN host addresses are harvested and used for block lists. (I only have anectotal evidence: friends and I wanted to watch some swiss soccer stream via swiss servers and it was blocked.)

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Splinternet and Starlink

This started off short but that didn’t work.
TL;DR – Starlink will have regulatory challenges from lots of countries. Don’t expect it to be the panacea of providing access to those prohibited by their regime.
Splinterization has been a process 25+ years in the making. Like boiling a frog the water is now boiling and it won’t get better.

Long version follows.


Allow me to dismiss the Starlink thing before going further.

unrestricted internet feeds will be available for anyone with the right receivers

Oh you can get the right receiver, if your government lets you. But until SpaceX gets the license from that entity’s FCC equivalent (or PTT) SpaceX will be forbidden to transmit into that country.

Further, unless they pay the fees to have the ground transceivers transmit through the entity airspace and up to StarLink, that won’t work either. So yes, StarLink COULD change how people who are now restricted into the "splinternet" COULD access The Internet, don’t hold your breath to happen at all. There’s a history here… when X.25 was popular and then IP became popular, some countries demanded lots of restrictions and settlement fees — much as they had for postal services. That was the beginning of fragmentation — and it came long before IP was global (or as global as it is).

And now onto Splinternet.
Once upon a time there was no Internet, and then there was the ARPAnet, and then the NSFnet, and then the commercial Internet (CIX, MAE-WEST, etc.) and large carriers (e.g. Global Crossing, Worldcom, AT&T) dropped undersea fibers to hook up other countries at high speed, instead of slow speed over latent satellite links with little to no intra-country distribution.

Once the high speed stuff was in there was a lot of negotiation to be had and eventually there was a stiff agreement. Then malware hit, originally spam — which originated in real life, then on Usenet ("green card lawyers), then on the Internet.

That created the beginning of balkanization as people put policies in place to prevent "some of the content" from getting through. In time, as the attacks got more sophisticated, having a policy was not enough, and scripts were written.

Conveniently, the explosion of use of IPv4 necessitated NAT (or as Cisco called it PAT) and eventually CGNAT. This meant everyone who needed lots of addresses needed an appliance… and now that appliance could do all these functions.

Thus was formed the IPS/IDS/NAT box we ubiquitously call by any of those names or… simply "the firewall." This completed the user side of balkanization because now it was up to each user ("company", "home", whatever) to determine their specific policy of what they would accept, and what they would send. See the "Robustness Principle" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robustness_principle) which says be liberal in what you accept… and now that was no longer true.

Authoritarian governments (China, Russia, Turkey, and if you want to add porn the UK and Australia, and if you want to add sex workers the US) started a new policy of prohibiting what they didn’t like. Some like FOSTA incur penalties. Some include stripping of social rights (China social score) and some include outright blocking of the Net at will (Turkey, Russia, China, some African countries https://qz.com/africa/1808728/african-internet-shutdowns-were-more-frequent-in-2019/).

That is the frog boiling in the pond. Through initiating the original measures and sucking up to the marketing organizations, and not going after the malware spreaders, then establishing firewalls to block parts of the net but nobody but your organization knows which ones, and then "letting" regimes block the entire net to the country, this world has created this splinternet.

Splinternet is real, and as the Chinese work to rewrite URLs in real time so the news you read doesn’t mention Tianenman Square, and Google and Apple self censor to reach that market, this is a real thing. Starlink won’t save us from this. It will be interesting to see how many countries do a deal with Starlink/SpaceX and how many hold out for cash.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Splinternet and Starlink

I see your are conflating user choices to filter the Internet with government forceable filtering the Internet for their subjects. The first does not lead to fragmentation, as other people, or employees at home can access whatever they want. Government filtering on the other hand is not only forcing a choice on people, but is invariably done to misinform them and protect the regime in power. Also it is easier to demonize those foreigners that the people have little contact with, as opposed to their friends living in a different country.

NoahVail (profile) says:

Upgrading to IPv6 requires private- and, in some cases, public-sector investment so this divided access to the internet will break along lines of wealth.

Frontier Communications has received public & private investment, yet most of it’s footprint lacks IPv6.

Perhaps what is required is a will to deploy IPv6 and a method to isolate CapEx from shareholder meddling.

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