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 127.0.0.1) 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.