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May 23, 2022updated 25 May 2022 12:50pm

What is the splinternet and why does it matter?

The internet is at risk of fragmenting into competing technospheres, also known as the splinternet.

By Laura Petrone and Jemima Walker

The splinternet is changing the World Wide Web. The splinternet refers to the fragmentation of the traditional internet into these separate technospheres, each with their own view on how to govern the digital landscape.

Technospheres refer to competing visions of how technology standards and regulations should be implemented. Each technosphere, is shaped by its own set of cultural, economic and political assumptions.

Competing technology visions lead to technospheres

Since its inception, the internet has lacked central oversight. A handful of mostly US companies – such as Meta, Alphabet and Amazon – have leveraged this freedom to dominate the web. In the wake of online abuse attributed to Big Tech, the current model of self-regulation is in question and governments have different views on how to fix it.

The US, the UK, the EU and other liberal democracies are introducing more regulation around data privacy, antitrust and data protection, without disputing the global and open approach to the internet.

Meanwhile China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes are looking to put the power back into the hands of nation states with the aim of building a tech infrastructure giving absolute control over the digital space. For example, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ongoing, Moscow has resorted to leveraging its Sovereign Internet Law to censor sites and hobbling social networks.

The splinternet is dangerous

The resulting fragmentation of the internet into competing technospheres prevents the development of international governance across digital segments. Regulatory gaps are left and security threats increase as mechanisms to ensure data security, prevent cybercrime, and develop common ethical standards remain insufficient.

Competing views on the internet also translate into conflicts in internet infrastructure. This is particularly clear when it comes to semiconductor supply chains and submarine communication cables, both of which are critical elements of nation states’ digital power.

As the gulf between technospheres widens, mirroring the distrust and dysfunction in international relations, the problem of the splinternet grows.

Internet balkanisation will cost both autocracies and democracies

The costs of the splinternet are both economic and social. Digital fences across jurisdictions risk damaging companies with global operations. The divide between techno-ideological blocks adds to economic uncertainty and increases the threat to cybersecurity and supply chains.

Global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year, with 30 countries experiencing a deterioration of the environment for human rights online, according to non-profit Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2021 report. Most countries moving towards a restrictive internet model are emerging economies, where the internet sector does not necessarily receive the necessary political protection.

However, digital authoritarianism does not only affect autocracies. Liberal democracies are also sources of technologies enabling digital surveillance and repression. Companies based in democracies, such as Israel’s NSO Group supply spyware for targeted surveillance and predictive policing tools used by human rights-abusing regimes. And in recent years, the rising prevalence of online political disinformation, violent incitement, and the promotion of polarised content all risk undermining democracies worldwide. While few regulatory options are available to check their spread, private online platforms will be required to be more accountable and transparent.