When the threat of Internet fragmentation becomes clearer

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

or report commissioned by the European Parliament and published in July, explains this developing phenomenon and what a “fragmented Internet” could mean. “In our report, we do not say that there is a “splinternet” or that it will happen immediately. We are more interested in this tendency 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 can also call it balkanization of the Internet”, says researcher Ofelie Coelho. A priori, nothing has to do with the famous Levallois couple, but with the process of dividing a state into smaller pieces that is widely connected with South-Eastern Europe, ie. Balkans.

But, she says, “talking about ‘splinternet’ is kind of misunderstanding how the Internet works. Since originally the term Internet comes from the Internet, the contraction of the interconnected network in English or the idea of ​​​​the 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 we decide to interconnect.” What Clément Perarnaud summarizes: “The Internet by nature is already fragmented, it is a network of networks”.

Some types of “splinternet”

And behind this term borrowed from English, we find fragmentation on several levels. The most obvious, and perhaps the best known, is geopolitics. “Connecting a network is a human, political choice,” says Opélie Coelho. How do states modify structures to bring the Internet into line with their national borders? This is especially the problem with China and its virtual Great Wall Great firewallor Russia and its RuNet. The two researchers also mention India, Iran, North Korea, as well as several 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 before the 2021 elections,” the researcher adds.

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 “technology silos”, taking the example of Google. “It is the ability of a company that is economically consolidated and has a significant centralization of services to own its technical infrastructure. Thus, by installing in particular its own submarine cables, protocols designed in-house on proprietary technologies, coupled with direct access to data and services of billions of customers, Google is creating its own network. This phenomenon, which on a global scale contributes to fragmentation, is called the “internet platformization process”.

Is China the only country seeking digital independence?

Often mentioned first when talking about closed digital sovereignty, China still presents several faces in its vision of internet governance. “It is not right to talk about total digital independence, there is a lot of interdependence in all the dimensions that make up the digital, even if she claims the claim, analyzes Ophélie Coelho. We can talk about targeted protectionism”. Or an obvious common ground with the United States, which however does not apply the same logic of censorship. In China’s case, digital protectionism is mixed with party-state ideology. “, she adds. And without forgetting that it is not always at the origin of the closing choices, especially the embargoes that affect it, “as was the case with Android” and that push it to create its own technological solutions. made in china.

Of course, China does not have a monopoly on shutting down its grid. Russia is also widely mentioned, especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, but RuNet in fact it has been around for much longer. India is also entering the field, like Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc., depending on the political tides of each country. “The fragmentation of the internet specific to access to online content is very likely to accelerate as states deal with digital issues,” warns Clément Perarnaud.

What is the role of 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 deterioration of this process,” notes the researcher of European digital policy and Internet governance. This is a topic that is not central to the EU discourse, 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 “determine what fragmentations are necessary in a democratic society, to anchor any form of fragmentation as a justified derogation from human rights principles. It could be the right to data protection and privacy, for example.” This pious desire, which defends a necessary separation, beyond economic or geopolitical risk, joins the perspective of Opélie Coelho. “Slinternet is a moving phenomenon. We should not aim for the ideal of a global Internet. »

Several aggravating factors shed light on the dangers of the “splinternet”

In general, if the term “splinternet” and the global governance of the Internet are increasingly invited into debates, it is due to multifactorial causes. “In recent years, the controversy has ended Health Data Center, which concerned Microsoft’s choice to host and process French health data, helped to shed light on dependencies on extraterritorial services largely outside our jurisdiction,” the digital geopolitics specialist lists. “This includes the pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, legal news both in Europe and the United States, but also the choices of big American or Chinese technology investments, which have tremendous influence and colossal financial resources, in the infrastructures. giant. emphasizing. To this we can add the obvious fear and political use of the opposition between the open and the closed world, splinternet being a very media term, it has become a buzz word”. Sex limit the “splinternet”? “In a single word, we have the concentration of ideological conflicts between the free world on the one hand and the closed and dictatorial world on the other,” she summarizes.

But there is no doubt that the two experts are plunged into collective fear. “Nothing is impossible, Ophélie Coelho admits, and technically we can always create closed networks that will only have access to the digital resources present in the territory. However, the risk is not global but local, where in a context that we qualify as authoritarian, a country decides to completely close its digital borders to control or limit the action capacity of its population. Nothing new: in another era, you could cut telegraph or telephone cables. And we’ve always figured out how to connect the wires.

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