The Splintering Internet is a Threat to Global Connectivity and Freedoms Online

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Greater control by states through data, platform and network governance regulation is threatening to fragment the internet into separate spheres divided by geography and politics. Debora Irene Christine of the Tifa Foundation in Indonesia warns that these developments could undermine global connectivity and freedoms.

The Splintering Internet is a Threat to Global Connectivity and Freedoms Online

Under the mantle of digital sovereignty, both authoritarian and democratic states alike have increasingly attempted to overlay geopolitical borders on the internet. These trends reflect our fragmented international order and the projection of geopolitical struggles to cyberspace. At the same time, the moves by states to securitize cyberspace are also intended to limit the dominance and control of technology companies over public discourse and the digital economy.

Arguing that sovereignty extends into cyberspace, states are exerting greater control over the internet through policies such as data localization, setting up a national internet gateway, content censorship and filtering, and service shutdowns, which isolate networks from one another. Their competing visions for the governance of cyberspace have raised concerns that a “splinternet” – an internet that fragments into separate open and closed spheres divided by geography and politics – is inevitable.

Fragmentation across the internet stack

How is the internet fragmented and what does it mean for people’s experiences online?

Internet experts such as Georgetown University professor of technology, ethics and society Laura DeNardis and information political economy scholar Milton Mueller argue that universality, along with fragmentation, has always been the norm. The internet has been fragmented across the internet stack – the physical infrastructure layer (data centers, transmission systems, hardware), the logical layer (standards, protocols), the application and content layer (data, applications), and the legal layer (national policies, international treaties) – which is made up of a wide range of internet companies. This creates certain types of fragmentation and provides an ununified internet experience. Disturbingly, the past decade has witnessed a rapid expansion in the number and variety of proposals and policies which align internet technical standardization, infrastructure design, and “switch-offs” with the interests of the state.

At the legal layer, internet regulations, including intermediary liability and data protection regulations, can cause internet disruptions at various layers. Regulations such as the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) in Germany and the Regulation of the Minister of Communication and Informatics Number 5 of 2020 on Private Electronic System Operators (PM 5/2020) in Indonesia are examples of legal fracturing of the internet which makes content available in one region not necessarily the same as that available in another. Similarly, the proposed “National Internet Gateway” in Cambodia will make the Internet far less open for all Cambodians. In the US, meanwhile, several states have advanced separate internet legislation governing privacy, child protection and content moderation, setting up the possibility of 50 separate Internet jurisdictions in the country.

A lot of fragmentation at the application layer is due to the different operating systems the applications work on and the design choice made by platform providers. Some applications are designed not to interoperate for security reasons. Fragmentation at the physical infrastructure layer, meanwhile, can be attributed to the uneven distribution of broadband infrastructure and internet exchange points (IXPs), which then leads to different levels of internet access across the globe.

Credit: Tommy Lee Walker /

Fragmentation at the logical layer occurs due to the slow transition from Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) to IPv6. The rapid speed of digital transformation has resulted in the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses. Internet registries worldwide are promoting the adoption of IPv6 in each of their respective regions. Because there is no direct interoperability between the two protocols, however, it is likely that IPv4 users will not be able to access new services and applications which are more compatible with IPv6. At present, South Asia, North America and Western Europe are regions with the highest IPv6 adoption, while Africa and the Pacific (Oceania) have the lowest.

Governance of the logical layer of the internet is mostly done in organizations that are invisible to most users, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) which develops and defines internet protocols and standards, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) which develops hardware and wi-fi standards, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). These internet governance organizations are industry-led and, to varying degrees, allow civil society to participate in their activities. They make important decisions that shape our internet-mediated public sphere.

They are different from their governmental counterparts, such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is effectively closed to civil society participation. The ITU sets global information and communication technology standards and makes policy on a range of critical telecom issues with a limited mandate to regulate the internet ecosystem. Therefore, when standards proposal such as China’s New IP proposal (later rebranded as IPv6+) was introduced at the ITU, other stakeholders raised concerns about increasing intervention by states in the governance of the logical layer of the internet. Moreover, the proposal is raising alarms because it facilitates the loss of interoperability, identity verification, and new network capabilities for online tracing. It also introduced the idea of ManyNets, where heterogeneous network infrastructures connect using different sets of unique identifiers and addresses, essentially fragmenting the internet into “islands of communication”.

Similarly worrying is the increasing activism by states and their influence on industry-led organizations such as ICANN to govern the DNS (domain name system) through a proposal to “prevent and combat DNS abuse” – which broadly refers to the malicious use of domain names. The DNS is an important part of the global Internet infrastructure that functions like a phonebook of the internet and is created to simplify the mapping of IP addresses to labels or user-friendly domain names.

What constitutes malicious use is a major topic of debate within the ICANN community. In administering domain names, domain name registry operators – those administering .com, .org, or .id, among others – must adhere to “public interest commitments” in the standard registry agreement they make with ICANN by assessing whether the domain names they are operating are being used to perpetrate security threats. The lack of a clear definition of DNS abuse creates pressure on registry operators to conduct proactive monitoring, over censor to comply with their obligations, and remove content that is lawfully protected under international human rights standards.

Expanding the execution points for moderating online content from content- and application-level moderation to infrastructure-level (logical and physical) to prevent the spread of infringing online content is impinging on freedoms of expression and access information. Alongside ICANN’s overreach and ITU’s scope creep, all of these developments are undermining trust in the internet, its infrastructure and its governing mechanisms.

But what is more concerning is that the pursuit to assert more state control over internet infrastructure goes beyond the political labeling of states – the authoritarian and democratic-liberal divide. Despite its strong advocacy of an open and global internet, the European Union (EU) through European Commission recommends the creation of a public European DNS resolver service that will block the resolution of certain domain names which are non-compliant with the various content regulations in the region. The initiative, called DNS4EU, essentially establishes built-in filtering capabilities for the region’s DNS infrastructure. While the proposal is an attempt to curtail possible malicious cyberattacks, protect intellectual property rights, and filter illegal content, the way DNS resolvers work, that is at the domain name level, makes it impossible to ensure that only illegal content is blocked. It will block access to an entire domain name.

Against (further) internet fragmentation

Recent technical and policy developments in internet governance have furthered the risk that the internet fragments into siloed chunks. These developments pose a threat to the open, interconnected and interoperable internet, along with its associated benefits to social and economic development, while also harming fundamental rights, including the right to information, freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to work. Multiple Internets that are controlled by individual states, in particular, are optimized for state surveillance and infringement of the rights and freedoms online.

While strategies to advance digital sovereignty are aimed at fostering the competitiveness and technical independence of states, those which have relied very much on foreign suppliers for the Internet and whose Internet traffic is driven by content from overseas companies will likely be disproportionately affected by this. If networks are not allowed to interconnect, there will be a significant degradation of network performance and an increase in costs.

Given what is at stake if the global, free and interoperable internet breaks into distinct intranets, policies that intentionally or unintentionally cause fragmentation must pursue legitimate public interest and be proportionate in balancing between control and freedoms on the internet. Policy options must be assessed based on their compatibility with human rights frameworks. Further, tools such as the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit can help policymakers and technologists assess the potential implications of their policies on the critical properties of the internet and on the enablers of a thriving internet – one that is open, globally-connected, secure and trustworthy.

Digital rights advocates need to expand their advocacy to include technical internet organizations, such as IETF, ICANN and the regional internet registries, as well as internet governance fora, and contextualize their advocacy accordingly. This engagement is crucial to advance global norms of human rights and freedoms in internet policymaking and to hold policymakers accountable.

Any views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views, opinions, policies or positions of either the Tifa Foundation or UNU-CS.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Debora Irene Christine

Debora Irene Christine

Tifa Foundation

Debora Irene Christine is a project manager for data policy and governance at Tifa Foundation. Previously, she was a researcher at the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS).

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