Should we be worried about a “splinternet”?

What if tomorrow each country developed its own Internet and closed his digital borders ? This is what is now called the “splinternet” or fragmentation of the Internet. “The term is not scientific but it is fashionable”, attacks Clément Perarnaud, specialist in the issues of European digital policy and internet governance. For Ophélie Coelho, independent researcher in digital geopolitics, several factors explain the proliferation of debates on the subject.

A report commissioned by the European Parliament and released in July, explains this emerging phenomenon and what an “Internet in pieces” could mean. “In our report, we do not say that the “splinternet” exists or that it will happen immediately. We are more interested in this trend of a progressive fragmentation of Internet networks”, reports Clément Perarnaud, one of the co-authors.

Definition of “splinternet”

But already “splinternet”, what does that mean? It is the contraction of an English term “splintering of the Internet”, which basically means fragmentation of the Internet. “In France, we could also call it the balkanization of the Internet,” says researcher Ophélie Coelho. A priori, nothing to do with the famous Levallois couple, but with the process of dividing a State into smaller pieces that has been widely associated with south-eastern Europe, i.e. the region of Balkans.

But, she says, “to speak of ‘splinternet’ is somehow to misunderstand how the Internet works. Since initially, the term Internet comes from internetting, the contraction of the English interconnected network, or the idea of ​​interconnection of networks. Internet technology is not, in essence, a global technical object since its size ultimately depends on the nature and number of networks that we decide to interconnect”. What Clément Perarnaud also summarizes: “The Internet by nature is already fragmented, it is a network of networks”.

Several kinds of “splinternet”

And behind this term borrowed from English, we find fragmentations on several levels. The most obvious, and arguably the best known, is geopolitics. “The connection of a network is a human, political choice”, advances Ophélie Coelho. How do states modify structures to bring the Internet into line with their national borders? This is particularly the problem of China and its virtual Great Wall, the Great Firewallor Russia and its RuNet. The two researchers also cite India, Iran, North Korea, as well as certain African countries. “Some countries may decide to cut off access to networks or to certain digital services such as social networks, as was the case for example in Uganda in the days preceding the 2021 elections,” adds the researcher.

But it is important to note that political factors are not the only ones accelerating fragmentation. According to Clément Perarnaud, commercial, technological and technical issues also contribute to the “splinternet” phenomenon. He cites in particular the creation of “technological silos”, taking the example of Google. “It’s the ability of a company that is economically consolidated and has a significant centralization of services to own its own technical infrastructure. Thus, by installing its own submarine cables in particular, protocols designed in-house on proprietary technologies, accompanied by direct access to the data and services of billions of consumers, Google is creating its own network”. This phenomenon, which on a global scale contributes to fragmentation, is called “the process of platformization of the Internet”.

Is China the only country seeking digital independence?

Often first cited when talking about closed digital sovereignty, China still presents several faces on its vision of internet governance. “It is not fair to speak of total digital independence, there are too many interdependencies in all the dimensions that make up the digital, even if she claims the claim, analyzes Ophélie Coelho. We can speak of targeted protectionism”. Either an obvious common point with the United States, which nevertheless does not apply the same logic of censorship. In the case of China, digital protectionism is mixed with party-state ideology. “, she adds. And without forgetting that it is not always at the origin of the choices of closure, in particular of the embargoes which affect it, “as was the case with Android”, and which pushes it to create its own technological solutions. made in china.

Obviously, China does not have a monopoly on shutting down its network. Russia is also widely cited, particularly since the start of the war in Ukraine, but the RuNet has actually been around for much longer. India is also venturing into this terrain, like Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc., depending on the political swells of each country. “The fragmentation of the Internet specific to access to online content is very likely to accelerate as States take up digital issues”, warns Clément Perarnaud.

What role for the European Union?

And the European Union in all this? “It is a support for the open Internet but in some respects it acts as a catalyst for the aggravation of this process, notes the researcher on European digital policy and Internet governance. This is a theme that is not central to the discourse of the EU, it has been addressed in the context of the right to be forgotten or Net neutrality, but not on a more global scale. »

Thus, the commissioned report also aims to “define what fragmentations are necessary in a democratic society, to anchor each form of fragmentation as a derogation justified by the principles of human rights. It can be the right to data protection and privacy, for example”. This pious wish which advocates a necessary partition, beyond the economic or geopolitical stakes, joins the point of view of Ophélie Coelho. “The splinternet is a moving phenomenon. We must not carry the ideal of a global Internet as an end. »

Several aggravating factors now shed light on the risks of “splinternet”

Overall, if the term “splinternet” and the global governance of the Internet are increasingly invited into debates, it is thanks to multifactorial causes. “In recent years, the controversy over Health Data Hub, which concerned Microsoft’s choice for the hosting and processing of French health data, helped to shed light on the dependencies on extraterritorial services largely outside our jurisdiction”, lists the specialist in digital geopolitics. “The pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, legal news both in Europe and in the United States, but also the investment choices of American or Chinese Big Techs, which have immense influence and colossal financial resources, in the giant infrastructures, also participate in this highlighting. We can add to this the obvious fear and the political use of the opposition between the open world and the closed world, the splinternet being a very mediatic term, it has become a buzz word”. Sexy limit the “splinternet”? “In a single word, we have the concentration of ideological conflicts between the free world on one side and the closed and dictatorial world on the other,” she summarizes.

But out of the question for the two experts to plunge into collective fear. “Nothing is impossible, admits Ophélie Coelho, and technically we can always create closed networks which would have access only to the digital resources present on the territory. However, the danger is not global but local, where in a context that we qualify as authoritarian a country decides to completely close its digital borders in order to control or restrict the capacity for action of its population. Nothing new: in another era, you could cut telegraph or telephone cables. And we always figured out how to reconnect the wires.

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Should we be worried about a “splinternet”?

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