Splinternet: From one internet to multiple webs

Digital freedomPrivacy news
3 mins
Web browser split in two.

Much of the internet you see depends on where you are. While some countries allow virtually unfettered access to all that the internet has to provide, more often than not you’ll find countries that are introducing and strengthening laws that censor, monitor, and control online content within their borders.

The most recent report from Freedom House confirms as much—2020 was the tenth year in which internet freedoms declined, and even accelerated due to the pandemic. On top of growing surveillance measures and censorship in attempts to combat misinformation, the report also points to growing divisions between countries over how the internet should look in their respective territories: a phenomenon described as the “splinternet.”

What is the ‘splinternet’?

A portmanteau of “splinter” and “internet,” the splinternet describes the growing phenomenon of the internet being divided geographically and politically by different countries and regions that impose various regulations and restrictions to control internet access within their borders.

The result of this is a fragmentation of the internet, from the singular World Wide Web into multiple variations of the internet that exist in parallel with each other.

While the most well-known examples of splintering away from the internet come from countries that have placed significant national firewalls and surveillance monitoring systems like China’s “Great Firewall” and Russia’s more recent Sovereign Internet Law, other forms of internet regulation also exist in the shape of surveillance laws (like in India and the UK), as well as data privacy laws like the GDPR that give internet users more control over the data they’re giving to different services.

A fragmenting internet: Why now?

The internet was conceived by its founder, Tim Berners-Lee, as decentralized, with all data treated the same (net neutrality), catering to everyone on a wide variety of devices, and with universal standards.

As the internet grew, countries that censor their media began seeing it as a threat and started applying similar content restrictions as they would on traditional media. It was not until 2013, however, when the Snowden leaks revealed the international reach of the NSA’s surveillance that gave these same countries the justification they needed to build their own controlled versions of the internet.

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For much of the internet’s early history, a large segment of internet services were (and still are) U.S.-based. Other countries have begun to seek greater “sovereignty” over their slice of the internet by building their own tech giants, meant to operate mainly within their own borders.

Then came the EU’s more stringent privacy regulations, which created a different experience for users based within the region. For example, the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” which came into effect in 2014, has forced Google to remove certain information from its search results within that region only.

And in recent years, political conflict and trade disputes between China, the U.S., and Europe have led countries to think about how much they want foreign-made technology to reap rewards—a lot of it via data collection—on their home turfs (see: the near-banning of TikTok in the U.S.).

Splinternet and the erosion of digital freedom

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might include “the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media,” but this right is becoming murkier by the year.

We were already seeing the splintering of the internet accelerate in 2020, with countries taking bigger steps to control and monitor what is being accessed online, whether it’s through censoring what is deemed “fake news,” outright blocking of apps and services, and requiring big companies to store user data physically in the country of origin, which would make it easier for law enforcement agencies to access information if they wanted to.

No matter where you are, “your” internet will likely look different based on your location, and that’s limiting your digital freedom. You can reclaim some of that freedom with a VPN. But the issue of censorship only grows in the relentless splintering that’s unlikely to ever be reversed.

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Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.