In the vast expanse of the internet, a seismic shift is unfolding. The internet is always changing, but this time might redefine how we perceive and use this global network. This phenomenon is called the “Splinternet.”
The Splinternet is the idea that the World Wide Web, as we know it, is fracturing. Let’s take an example. Think of the internet as a bustling metropolis. You’ve got big buildings (serves) connected by superhighways — except in this case, it’s information highways. It’s all flowing and connected. Now, picture barriers springing up. Suddenly, you have divided and unconnected neighborhoods. That’s the Splinternet for you.
This is a bigger problem than you think. A divided internet is not good for society. It’s not good for communication and innovation. In fact, it’s a threat to our very own democracy. Here’s what you need to know.
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It’s hard to overstate just how impactful the internet has been. In fact, it could be one of the most impactful inventions in history — period. Having access to the sum of the world’s knowledge, and an endless stream of information and entertainment is one of the most impressive things mankind has ever achieved. But the internet is not the unitary monolith you may imagine.
Several countries have taken steps to isolate their internet and control the flow of information. Countries like China, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam, or Saudi Arabia have been implementing national security filtering, targeting the websites and topics they don’t like. Essentially, they’re censoring the internet and creating their own isolated network.
Sure, you could argue that this is not bad because it’s their “digital sovereignty.” Digital sovereignty is a term you’ll hear often in discussions about the Splinternet. It’s the idea that governments have the right to manage and control the internet within their borders. This makes sense because, on one hand, it allows countries to protect their citizens’ data and uphold local laws. But in reality, this is often used as a pretext for censorship and controlling the digital narrative.
Essentially, these countries are attempting to separate their national internet from the free flow of information. The idea is to control what their citizens see — a form of widespread censorship.
Without a doubt, though, the most important example of a splinternet is China.
China’s Great Firewall is perhaps the most renowned example of the Splinternet. For the country’s government, this is not just a technological barrier but a symbol of internet censorship and surveillance. We take things like news media, search engines, and social media for granted – but China bans what outlets it can’t control. China has created its proprietary digital ecosystem with its own set of rules. Essentially, it has created a parallel internet universe where censorship rules and no dissent is allowed.
- The names of high-ranking leaders, such as Xi Jinping and Deng Xiaoping;
- Political movements and protests;
- Falun Gong and cults;
- The Tiananmen Square Massacre (and many other ethnic issues);
- The Xinjiang internment camps;
- Discussions of Tibetan Independence.
Historically, savvy Chinese users bypassed this by using VPNs, but more recently, China is cracking down on VPN users. In fact, anyone looking to use a VPN in China would be wise to take precautions; use only reliable VPNs, and preferably a VPN kill switch.
However, not everyone is a fan of the splinternet.
Europe has taken a different approach. The European Union is perhaps the most active fighter against censorship. The EU instead emphasizes privacy and data protection. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the bloc’s ambitious rule to offer internet users advanced privacy rights – a pioneering commitment to digital rights. However, it also adds some complications for companies that have to make extra effort to ensure digital privacy.
The GDPR effectively extends the EU’s digital borders, influencing international data flows. Most websites have included some GDPR measures (yes, that annoying cookie consent box), but believe it or not, some websites (including major ones) are still inaccessible in the EU.
The United States, home to Silicon Valley, champions an internet largely ruled by market forces. For better or for worse, it’s still the American big tech companies that shape much of the world’s digital experiences. However, even in the land of the free, there are calls for more regulation, especially concerning data privacy and misinformation. The balance between freedom and regulation remains a contentious topic in the U.S.
But all in all, you can’t develop a ‘real’ internet just with some countries. Well technically you can, but it’s not the world wide web internet — it’s the splinternet.
What does all this mean for us as internet users?
The Splinternet challenges the notion of the internet as a space for free expression. When countries enforce their own internet rules, access to information can become a privilege rather than a right. This could lead to a world where your digital experience is largely dictated by where you live.
It’s also bad for business.
Economically, the splinternet brings problems. A divided internet can disrupt global trade and stifle communication and innovation. Tech companies may struggle to navigate a maze of regional regulations, potentially hindering growth and the free exchange of ideas.
Cybersecurity becomes more complex in a Splinternet scenario. Isolated digital infrastructures might make it easier for countries to defend against cyber threats, but they also create a patchwork of systems that might be hard to secure collectively.
But perhaps the most complicated issue is a threat to our democracy. When the internet became widespread, oppressive governments suddenly couldn’t deceive their citizens — or not so easily. The Splinternet, if successful, will give governments the ability to control what their citizens see. The free flow of information that we take for granted becomes a luxury commodity; and without this free flow of information, many of our democratic rights become threatened, too.
As we look to the future, the trajectory of the Splinternet will be shaped by the tug-of-war between control and freedom, between national security and global openness. The outcome of this struggle will determine the landscape of our digital world.
We as users, are not just bystanders. You’re a participant in this digital evolution. Your choices, from the platforms you support to the policies you advocate for, can influence the direction of the Splinternet.
Staying informed and engaged is critical. As the Splinternet evolves, understanding its nuances will empower you to navigate its challenges and contribute to the conversation about the future of our interconnected world.
The splinternet doesn’t get much attention, but it’s one of the most pressing issues of our time. It’s not just a story about technology, it’s about freedom, innovation, and the very communication we take for granted in this day and age.
The internet was born from a vision of connectivity without borders, but that’s slipping away. If we want to preserve this ethos, we need to do better.