Wildcard: The Splintered Internet

SplinterNet

The Internet “is arguably the most transnational economic and political network in human history,” one that has “greatly benefited the spread of commerce and ideas.” The US, along with many allies, has been a champion of a free and open Internet, and US-based multinational companies have reaped substantial rewards from Internet economic activity. Some other nations have sought, to varying extents, to control Internet content and access. Because of its global nature, providing a ready highway for hackers and spies, it has been argued that the Internet threatens to weaken national borders.

Indeed, another beneficiary of the open Internet has been the US intelligence establishment. New revelations of US intelligence- gathering via the Internet are prompting fresh calls for restrictions on the global flow of information, limits that could effectively create a “splinter net” according to Google law enforcement and information security director Richard Salgado.3

In fact, the spying revelations are just one of several factors that could lead to a fractured Internet.

BACKGROUND

The Internet is a global collection of linked computer networks that communicate using a standard set of protocols. Upstream Internet service providers (ISPs) provide the physical hardware that connects devices and networks—the “Internet backbone.”

Several organizations oversee Internet policies and protocols, including the Internet Society and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and its various working groups. Both the Internet Society and the IETF are open membership organizations.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a closed, nonprofit corporation that administers the various levels of the Internet domain name system. Headquartered in the US, ICANN was originally chartered by the US government. While ICANN receives advice from many national governments and international organizations, there has been concern that the US has undue influence over ICANN. Plans have been advanced for shifting ICANN’s responsibilities to a UN organization.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Disagreements about whether and to what extent governments should control the Internet and privacy fears raised by revelations of Internet data-gathering are the primary drivers threatening to split the Internet.
  • Mesh network technology is already enabling private networks that bypass the public Web.
  • Though there are substantial forces that could lead to Internet splits, there is also significant investment in the current system and a splintered system would add substantial complications.

3 DRIVERS

Disagreements about whether and to what extent governments should control the Internet and privacy fears raised by revelations of Internet data-gathering are the primary drivers threatening to split the Internet. Meanwhile, mesh network technology is already enabling private networks that bypass the public Web.

  • Authoritarian control. States such as China and Iran seek to control discussion and limit free speech. The “Great Firewall of China” that separates Chinese Internet users from the rest of the world could be the harbinger of more and deeper divisions in other parts of the world.
  • Cyber-attacks. Authoritarian states are also the source of many international cyber-attacks. In their recent book, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former State Department official Jared Cohen call China the world’s “most sophisticated and prolific” hacker. Countries that are the targets of these attacks could seek to separate themselves from their attackers, again leading to a divided Internet.
  • Internet espionage. Revelations by Edward Snowden of US Internet surveillance have prompted calls for various levels of Internet separation. German telecoms proposed that Germany develop separate Web and email, so that communications within Germany are not routed through foreign servers. EU leaders called for cloud data storage kept separate from the US, and the Brazilian government sought to require US companies to store data about Brazilians inside Brazil. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich suggested, “We need an autonomous European Internet infrastructure.” However, more than 90% of German Internet communications already stay inside Germany, and security experts have questioned whether routing all domestic Internet traffic through domestic servers provides significant protection from spying by foreign intelligence services.

3 POTENTIAL OBSTACLES

Though there are substantial forces that could lead to Internet splits, there is also significant investment in the current system and a splintered system would need to provide benefits that outweigh this investment and inertia.

  • Popularity of global sites. Services like Google and Facebook have global followings. Many users outside the US would be reluctant to lose access to these systems that rely on the Internet’s current architecture.
  • Web of regulations. According to Sascha Meinrath of the New American Foundation, if the Internet were balkanized, “Netizens would fall under a complex array of different jurisdictions imposing conflicting mandates and conferring conflicting rights.” As Meinrath points out, “Already, [German citizens] accessing a New York City datacenter via a Chinese fiber line may find their data covered by an array of conflicting legal requirements requiring privacy and active surveillance at the same time.”
  • Cost. Maintaining separate Internets at a national level, or several parallel global Internets, would inevitably add significant costs—both directly in terms of redundant hardware, and indirectly for providers and users who want or need to access multiple networks.
3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS
  • An Internet fractured along national lines or according to global political alliances would create serious hindrances for the conduct of international business. Global companies should closely monitor restrictions on Internet access and activity in important current markets and in those in which they aspire to operate in 2020 and beyond. Businesses need to be prepared to respond to multiple, sometimes conflicting, national policies and regulations.
  • Numerous IT developments hint at people’s desire to fly under the radar and share digital content without the permanence and digital trails associated with earlier applications. These include small, mesh networks (as described in the Drivers section of this brief) and some of the recent social apps like SnapChat (where photos self-destruct) or Frankly (which automatically deletes text messages after the recipient reads them). This consumer need is only just starting to be addressed by technology firms and brands, and will likely provide ample room for innovation in coming years as computing continues to move off the desktop and further into the physical world.
  • Emerging economies may become a battleground for Internet openness. Many of the nations that approved the 2012 ITU telecommunications treaty were developing economies in Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America. Companies seeking to access these markets should monitor Internet regulation and seek to influence policies where possible in order to maintain openness and access.