Blocked internet site notification from within the UAE. (Flickr Photo by David Reid, CC 2.0)
Blocked internet site notification from within the UAE. (Flickr Photo by David Reid, CC 2.0)

I recently attended the 9th Annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul, Turkey. During this conference, three panels dealt explicitly with the issue of Internet fragmentation: The Internet Society’s (ISOC’s) Implications of Post-Snowden Internet Localization Proposals; The Centre for International Governance Innovation’s (CIGI’s) Preserving a Universal Internet: The Costs of Fragmentation; and The Internet and Jurisdiction Project’s Will Cyberspace Fragment Along National Jurisdictions?. These panels painted a pretty grim picture of the dangers of fragmentation for the Internet as a global system. I was left wondering, however, should your average Internet user in a liberal democracy really care about the fragmentation of the Internet?

A few simple definitions are in order. First, and most importantly, fragmentation is anything that works against the fundamental technical nature of the Internet as a network of networks based upon the idea of universal interoperability between devices and completely free flowing communication. The technology of the Internet has a universal potential, which is why it has been able to spread from a few computers housed at research organizations to a global platform for e-commerce, communication, networking, cultural expression, and, most importantly, cat videos (dog videos in my case). By an Internet user in a liberal democracy, I mean someone that is physically located in one of the classic democratic countries, like America, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and so forth. Lastly, by average user, I mean someone who uses the Internet on a daily basis, but does not really understand how the system is currently governed or, for that matter, how the technology works at a technical level.   

So what forms can fragmentation take? The technology of the Internet might be universally interoperable, but human interaction is not. Many sources of fragmentation emerge simply because people, and societies more generally, are not as interoperable as computers. The fact that the world is full of different societies and different states with different national laws generates a great deal of legal fragmentation of the Internet, in the sense that it is not clear which laws apply where. The recent case where Microsoft charged that data generated by an American that was stored on a server in Ireland did not need to be turned over to US law enforcement because they had no right to data not housed in the US is an example of this legal fragmentation. Somewhat relatedly, fragmentation can also occur due to data localization, where a country determines that the data generated (and potentially accessed) by its citizenry must be physically stored on servers within the country. Recent talk by Brazil of routing Internet traffic around Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in the US or the potential for a proverbial "European Cloud" are examples of this process of data localization. Fragmentation can also occur due to traffic management processes, where governments and Internet Service Providers (ISP) throttle or out-right block certain types of traffic. Things like blocking child pornography or restricting hate speech are examples of positive forms of traffic management. Quite quickly, however, restricting content can go from protecting the interests of society to full-blown censorship of individual free expression. It is an open question, for example, at what point the new European "right to be forgotten" goes from protecting the privacy of individuals to unduly suppressing the freedom of expression of others. At a technical level, the potential for people to start using proprietary protocols again or more generally for there to be differences in the basic Internet protocols that devices rely upon (what is known as the IPv4-to-IPv6 transition) could lead to fragmentation between users of different protocol standards (think of AOL in the early days when a user could not communicate with a non-AOL user).

So, fragmentation can take many forms. But, overall, should the average Internet user in a liberal democracy really care about the potential for Internet fragmentation? The answer, I charge, is yes. Internet users in liberal democracies should care for two reasons. First, Internet users in a liberal democracy should care because fragmentation will mean losing out on future global GDP growth. To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton’s campaign, it’s about the economy, stupid. Secondly, and related to the first point, average Internet users in liberal democratic states should care because it’s a matter of distributional justice (who gets what in a fair way) and self-preservation.   

Some forms of fragmentation are not likely to cause too much grief amongst your average Internet user in a liberal democracy, so it is easy to see why people might think the whole issue is overblown. Talk of European data localization, for instance, could result in some relatively small limitations to the content that North American Internet users can access. However, I would hazard a guess that a majority of North American Internet users would not notice if many European sites, especially those hosted in German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Spanish or so forth, were no longer accessible. British sites would be an exception as there are no linguistic barriers to North American access of these sites. There would likely be more of an effect on content from the opposite direction, with the partitioning of the European Internet from the North American portions potentially leading to new restrictions on the content available to people in Germany, France, the UK and so forth. At the same time, current copyright restrictions already restrict what transnational content is available in what jurisdiction. One example is the different, and differently well-populated, versions of Netflix. American Netflix offers a lot more content than, say, Canadian Netflix. In other words, content is already fragmented and breaking apart the Internet is not likely to have too large of an effect on the material that average Internet users in liberal democracies access.  

Fragmentation of the non-Western parts of the Internet from the liberal democratic parts, like Iran’s talk of establishing its own Internet or any time China flexes its online censorship muscles, would have even less of an effect on the content that the vast majority of your average liberal democratic Internet users view on a daily basis. Content does not really flow from, say, the Chinese or Russian portions of the Internet to the liberal democratic side for two reasons. One reason is certainly the heightened censorship and regulatory roles that more authoritarian states play online. Plausibly, however, a large part also has to do with the linguistic differences that exist between Chinese characters or Russian Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet. Despite the progress of programs like Google translate, the average Internet user in the world’s liberal democracies probably doesn’t access the non-western portions of the Internet because these parts simply have no meaning to them. Why worry about the ability to physically access content that you cannot understand anyways?  

Even though your average liberal democratic Internet user wouldn’t see it, at least at the content level, the fragmentation of the Internet would matter a great deal. If the Internet was to break apart into regional or even national blocks, there would be large economic costs in terms of lost future potential for global GDP growth. As a recent McKinsey & Company report illustrates, upwards of 15 to 25 percent of Global GDP is currently determined by the movement of goods, money, people and data. These global flows (which admittedly include more than just data flows) contribute yearly between 250 to 400 billion dollars to global GDP growth. The contribution of global flows to global GDP growth is only likely to grow in the future, provided that the Internet remains a functionally universal system that works extraordinarily well as a platform for e-commerce. Missing out on lost GDP growth harms people economically in liberal democratic countries and elsewhere. Average users in the liberal democracies should care, therefore, about the fragmentation of the broader Internet because it will cost them dollars and cents, even if the fragmentation of the Internet would not really affect the content that they themselves access.

Additionally, the same Mckinsey & Company report notes that countries that are well connected to the global system have GDP growth that is up to 40 percent higher than those countries that have fewer connections to the wider world. Like interest rates, annual GDP growth compounds itself, meaning that early gains grow exponentially. If the non-Western portions of the Internet wall themselves off from the rest (or even if parts of what we could call the liberal democratic Internet do the same), the result over the long term will be slower growth and a smaller GDP per capita in less well-connected nations. Some people might look at this situation and be convinced that excluding people in non-liberal democracies from the economic potential of the Internet is not right. In normative terms, these people might deserve to be connected, at the very least so that they can benefit from the same economic boon as those in more well connected advanced liberal democracies. In other words, average Internet users in liberal democracies should care about Internet fragmentation because it is essentially an issue of equality of opportunity.

Other people might only be convinced by the idea that poverty, inequality, and relative deprivation, while by no means sufficient causes of terrorism, insurgency, aggression and unrest, are likely to contribute to the potential for an increasingly conflictual world. Most average Internet users in Liberal democracies would likely agree that preventing flashes of unrest (like the current ISIL conflict in Iraq and Syria) is better than having to expend blood and treasure to try and fix them after they have broken out. Preventive measures can include ensuring solid GDP growth through global interconnection in every country, even if this is not, as I mentioned before, going to be enough to fix every problem every time.   

Overall, the dangers of a fragmented Internet are real and the average user in liberal democracies should care. With truly global forces at play, it is daunting to think of what the average user might do to combat fragmentation. Really only one step is realistic. Users need to recognize that the system works best and contributes most to the content and material well-being of all Internet users when it approaches its ideal technical design of universal interoperability. Societies will rightly determine that some things need to be walled off, blocked or filtered because this digital content has physical world implications that are not acceptable (child pornography, vitriolic hate speech, death threats, underage bullying on social media, etc.). However, in general, citizens should resist Internet fragmentation efforts in any form by putting pressure on their national politicians, Internet Service Providers, and content intermediaries, like Google, to respect the fundamental (and fundamentally beneficial) universally interoperable structure of the Internet. To do otherwise is to accept the loss of potential future global prosperity and to encourage a world that is unequal and prone to conflict and hardship.       

Restricting content can go from protecting the interests of society to full-blown censorship of individual free expression.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Eric Jardine is a CIGI fellow and an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech. Eric researches the uses and abuses of the dark Web, measuring trends in cyber security, how people adapt to changing risk perceptions when using new security technologies, and the politics surrounding anonymity-granting technologies and encryption.