“…the internet is in some danger of splintering or breaking up into loosely coupled islands of connectivity. A number of potentially troubling trends driven by technological developments, government policies and commercial practices have been rippling across the internet’s layers…”

The internet is at a crossroads.

Since its birth over 30 years ago, the internet has generally adhered to its original vision: a decentralized and universally connected network. That is to say, any connected device is generally free to exchange information with any other device that is willing to receive it. However, the internet of tomorrow faces a series of new challenges which, if allowed to accumulate unchecked, threaten to splinter it across national, commercial, and technological boundaries.

In a World Economic Forum white paper published earlier this year, three leading experts, including Vinton Cerf, widely regarded as the “father of the internet”, map out the fragmentation landscape, concluding with a top 10 list of forces to be watched.

These 10 forces are summarized in the chart below, each characterized by three key attributes:

· Form: the nature of the fragmentation (governmental, commercial or technical)

· Character: whether the potential outcome is generally positive, negative or neutral

· Impact: does the fragmentation affect a narrowly bounded set of processes or the internet as a whole?

Image: Max Galka

What are the motivations behind these forces? And after more than 30 years of a universally connected internet, why are they appearing only now?

The three forms of fragmentation shown in the chart (governmental, commercial and technical) are each driven by separate trends and forces, and threaten the web at different levels. Below is a summary of each one, along with specific examples of the risks they pose.

Technical fragmentation

“Conditions in the underlying infrastructure that impede the ability of systems to fully interoperate and exchange data packets and of the internet to function consistently at all end points.”

Many of the core technologies underlying today’s digital environment remain unchanged.

In 1983, the technological concepts pioneered by Vinton Cerf gave birth to the modern internet, which at the time comprised only a few hundred government and research organizations. Since then, connectivity has grown exponentially, reaching an estimated 13.4 billion connected devices in 2015, with projections as high as 38.5 billion devices by 2020.

Issues to watch:

· IPv6 transition: The internet will soon run out of IP addresses, the unique identifiers assigned to each connected device. To solve the problem, transition has begun to a new IP system, IPv6, which is capable of accommodating many more devices (up to 340 trillion trillion trillion). However, uptake has been slow, with only 4% of the internet currently supporting IPv6. Because the two systems are incompatible, if the world has not fully transitioned to IPv6 by the time the old addresses run out, the internet risks splitting apart into two separate networks that don’t work with each other.

· gTLD blocking: Though .com, .net, and .org are still the “generic top-level domains”(gTLDs) of choice for non-governmental websites, a wave of nearly 1,000 newly approved top-level domains in recent years raises new risks for fragmentation. Some governments already block certain domains associated with objectionable content, such as .xxx for pornography.

· Alternate root systems: When you type yahoo.com into your browser, how does the browser know where to look for the webpage? To find a website’s location, the internet depends on a single, universal “directory” called a root system, which translates a domain name (such as yahoo.com) to its corresponding IP address. However, in concept there is nothing that prohibits a government or intergovernmental organization from creating its own root system, which could map yahoo.com, for example, to an entirely different website. Though the paper deems the risk unlikely, such a scenario would arguably be the “mother of all fragmentations”, essentially carving out an entirely new internet – separate and distinct from the original.

Commercial fragmentation

“Business practices that constrain or prevent certain uses of the internet to create, distribute or access information resources.”

Facebook’s internet.org initiative stirs up controversy in India
Image: Free Software Movement of India

With the internet economy now accounting for 6% of global GDP, businesses face ever-growing economic incentives to fight for control of the e-commerce pie.

Issues to watch:

· Walled gardens: These are “closed” networks in which the operator restricts users’ access to content. Perhaps the most controversial example in recent memory is Facebook’s initiative to bring free internet to the developing world via internet.org, a platform operated and controlled by Facebook. Opponents argue that “in its present conception, internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.”

· Geo-blocking: A recent survey conducted by the European Commission across all 28 EU member states found that 38% of online consumer retailers and 68% of digital content providers report blocking consumers located in other EU countries. In some cases, “geo-blocking appears to be linked to agreements between suppliers and distributors”, a possible infringement of EU competition law.

Governmental fragmentation

“Government policies and actions that constrain or prevent certain uses of the internet to create, distribute or access information resources.”

To comply with content restriction laws that vary by country, Google Maps’ may show different borders depending on the user’s geographic location
Image: Metrocosm

The internet was originally conceived as a neutral, decentralized network that would transcend physical borders to promote the international good. But it has grown, so has its influence over countries’ national interests, whether those interests be national security, economic growth, data protection or global geopolitics.

Issues to watch:

· Content censorship: In the simplest case, digital fragmentation can result from countries’ inconsistent filtering of content, based on their own definitions of what constitutes free speech. As the paper notes: “In Germany, propaganda with Nazi symbols is forbidden, but in the United States it is protected speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. A freedom fighter in the eyes of one government may be a terrorist in the eyes of another country.” Or, as demonstrated by the map above, one government’s Arunachal Pradesh is another government’s Tibet.

· Digital protectionism: As the internet economy continues to grow, nations face a strong economic incentive to pursue approaches that give domestic businesses an advantage over foreign ones. Last year, the European Parliament called out the United States in a statement on “digital protectionism” which expressed concerns over a “transatlantic rift” in the economic cooperation between the US and Europe. “As Members of European Parliament we are surprised and concerned about the strong statements coming from US sources about regulatory and legislative proposals on the digital agenda for the EU.“

· Data privacy: Since Edward Snowden’s mass surveillance revelations in 2013, governments have become more sensitive to privacy concerns over the cross-border transfer of personally identifiable user data.

· Data localization: Whether motivated out of concern for citizens’ privacy, protection from foreign surveillance, or their own access to data for law enforcement purposes, countries are increasingly placing geographic restrictions over domestic businesses’ storage and transfer of data.

· Cyber-sovereignty: In its 2015 Freedom on the Net Survey, Freedom House reported a decline in internet freedom for the fifth year in a row, citing an increase in government censorship of content, domestic surveillance and laws limiting the use of encryption. Governments are increasingly asserting controls over internet usage within their own borders. If the trend continues, the web risks splitting apart into a series of “stand-alone national domains” connected by controlled international gateways.

In collaboration with Metrocosm.