Bad policies around the world are slowly killing the open internet
Cambodian monks stand in front of an Internet cafe in 2000. In 2022, Cambodia is set to activate its new National Internet Gateway, which will pass all web traffic through a state-controlled access point. Philip Lopez-AFP/Getty Images
No matter where we live, there is a lot to be afraid of. Wars continue. Authoritarians are growing. The climate is changing so fast that we cannot keep up with it. And yet we seem unable to do anything about it. With all of this, it is not surprising that another danger is being overlooked: the global drift towards “cutting”.
“Splinternet” is a word for the loss of a single, globally connected and decentralized internet. Our experience of a single resource is fragmented into separate networks controlled by governments or corporations. We have to stop it.
China’s internet connection has long been vastly different from the online experience elsewhere. In China, the Internet is tightly controlled by a central operation and the so-called Great Firewall. Many parts of the global Internet cannot be reached from China, but this practice appears to be attracting the interest of other governments.
For more than a decade, Russia has been trying to imitate China’s approach through RuNet. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought more attention to RuNet because it replaced existing Ukrainian network connections through Russia in the territories it occupies.
A proposed “National Internet Gateway” in Cambodia would manage all local and international online traffic through a centralized government facility, making the Internet far less open to all Cambodians.
If you think this isn’t a problem in the West, think again
Activities in July The Irish Data Protection Commission has threatened to ban users from social media platforms to protect their personal privacy. In both Brussels and: Londonpending draft legislation that would effectively allow governments and third parties to access private communications under the nebulous umbrella of “dangerous content.”
European telecom interests are pressing new telecommunications rules it would exacerbate fragmentation by requiring technology companies to share infrastructure costs with telecom operators. Users will only be able to access online services that have a special contract with the telecommunications provider, which means which parts of the Internet a user can see will depend on what contracts the user’s Internet Service Provider has. Of course, the additional costs will undoubtedly be passed on to the end users.
At the same time, Canada is trying to regulate the Internet as a broadcasting medium (according to Bill C-11), as well as trying to regulate what online news content is and how that news is paid for (Bill C-18) in the United States, various states have begun to operate with separate Internet legislation privacy, child protectionand: content moderationcreating the possibility of 50 separate Internet jurisdictions in the US alone.
In all these cases, the networks will generally use the same names and protocols as the global Internet. But access to all Internet resources will be patchy at best, depending on who and where you are and what contracts your Internet Service Provider has signed. Different versions of the “same information” may be available depending on approval or sanction by a particular government or company. Some companies will, of course, remove the service from one jurisdiction or another to avoid costs or legal liability. What emerges, people may still call “the Internet,” but it will no longer be the real thing. accessible to all, built on an open architecture, decentralized, scalable, technology neutral, simple and adaptive.
To allow this to happen to the greatest innovation of the current era would be criminal. The Internet allows us to connect, communicate, collaborate and create with anyone, anywhere. It has become the backbone of the world economy. It saw us through the epidemic. It is an indispensable lifeline for so many who are isolated or marginalized. It’s bad enough we didn’t link them all. Now we seem to want to disconnect those already connected.
There is hope. Efforts to strengthen the Internet in Africa and deepen its cross-border connections have yielded remarkable results. Kenya’s general elections in August set a new benchmark electoral transparency by displaying online real-time ballot counting and tabulation, protecting the democratic process. We are grateful for Kenya’s globally integrated, resilient internet access. The world should follow their example.
We must protect the Internet when there are threats, whether from a country, a corporation, or the wrong policy. 2023 must be a turning point in stemming this tide of Internet fragmentation so that our open Internet can continue its role as a global, vital resource for all.
Andrew Sullivan is president and CEO of the Internet Society.
Opinions expressed in Fortune.com comments are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs. Fortune:.