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Will a splinternet end the World Wide Web?

Concerns about security and nationalism are leading to increased web censorship. Many feel the internet will split into different parts – a move that would change the world significantly.

Garry white employee

Garry White

in Features


The age of the global internet may be coming to an end as mistrust between East and West mounts. Rising protectionism, nationalism, and security fears could see the internet split into separate parts, so countries can control what they regard as its negative aspects. This potential outcome, which has become known as the “splinternet”, could put globalisation into reverse, damage world trade and cut off western technology companies from growth markets. Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt thinks such an outcome is not only possible but likely within the next ten to 15 years. What will happen if he is right?

The internet was developed by the west and private companies were allowed to develop new businesses without government interference. As well as unleashing a wave of creative destruction in industries from retail to print publishing to broadcasting, there are a number of negative aspects that governments in other parts of the world are keen to control, be they political or religious. Different countries have different priorities and a one-size-fits-all internet is having difficulty meeting this goal. One solution could be to pull the plug on the open, global internet and instead create a series of independent networks.

Mr Schmidt talks about a bifurcated internet – one that is US-led and one that is China centric. However, some think that a European-based network is also possible, as the continent appears keener on data protection and regulation that anyone based in Washington DC. Indeed, earlier this year, Europe introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which supports privacy in a world where companies can benefit significantly from using and misusing personal information harvested from individuals. This raises the possibility of a breakup of the World Wide Web into three separate internets.

The Balkanisation of the internet is already underway. The open, free-speech dominated Anglosphere model does not work for China, where censorship and surveillance are a key priority. The country has already raised what is known as the “Great Firewall of China”, which blocks access to a selection of foreign websites and slows cross-border traffic. In 2010, this blocked Google’s search engine in the country. As a result, Google has been developing a censored search engine for China in a project known as Dragonfly. However, giving testimony this week to a Congressional Committee, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai denied the company will launch a censored search engine any time soon, despite admitting it was being developed by the company.  This raises the question as to why is it being developed if they have no plans to deploy the amended browser.

The internet is primarily built on technology and infrastructure made by US companies and controlled by US tech giants. The Made in China 2025 policy, a ten-year plan to update China’s manufacturing base by rapidly developing ten high-tech industries, is likely to see an upgrade of the country’s internet infrastructure that will see data centres and servers built in China that it can easily control. Indeed, Iran has already done this on a smaller scale. Dubbed the “Halal Net” the country has a “walled garden” intranet that allows the theocratic country to control what its citizens see and monitors their every online move. India has also introduced “data localisation” laws which require “user information” be stored on servers in India and India alone.        

Technology transfer – or stealing – has been a major issue for Donald Trump in his trade war with China. It is obvious that the US is seeking to derail Made in China 2025 and its Belt and Road initiative that seeks to build infrastructure in its neighbouring countries to boost its influence. Chinese-made technology is no longer being used in key infrastructure in the West, with BT Group saying it is removing Huawei technology from its 3G and 4G networks amid fears that the Chinese government could be using its infrastructure for spying purposes. New Zealand and Australia have also stopped telecom operators using Huawei's equipment for similar reasons.

Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, has been arrested in Canada on charges relating to the violation of sanctions against Iran. Beijing has expressed outrage over Ms Meng's detention in Vancouver, increasing tensions in the trade dispute. Although the arrest is not tied to technology directly, the charges relate to sanctions-busting actions with Iran, Huawei remains under suspicion.

Should Mr Schmidt’s prediction come to pass and the splinternet becomes a reality, there is likely to be serious consequences globally. Segmenting the internet will have major implications for eCommerce as the ability to service a global market will be reduced drastically. There may be a dizzying array of different standards and companies may be cut out of some markets altogether. Business such as Amazon and Google could lose their global dominance as the major growth markets in Asia are moved out of their sphere of influence. It could lead to the segregation of supply chains, which is likely to increase business costs. It could also result on less competition in segregated markets, which could push prices up higher for consumers. It is also likely to allow authoritarianism to prosper.

It is unclear whether Mr Schmidt’s vision of a digitally divided world will ultimately come to pass, but not insignificant steps in this direction are already being made. We may already be in the heyday of the World Wide Web as the era of virtual borders dismantles its global reach.

A version of this article appeared in Friday’s Daily Telegraph.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

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