In antiquity (before COVID-19) I boldly announced that the long-awaited “splinternet” had arrived. And I have made peace with the truth.
The SplinterNet concept is simple: instead of a single, global, open Internet that was intended by the pioneers of the early network, we now have multiple unconnected Internet.
In my argument Exhibit A is the successful separation of China by the Chinese government’s so-called “Great Firewall” with aggressive Internet censorship. The Chinese government not only censors internally, but also takes advantage of the lack of control abroad to censor worldwide and spread pro-Beijing propaganda and confusion. During the Beijing Olympics, for example, thousands of super-active fake accounts and bots flooded the comments of any prominent Twitter user (including me) criticizing the Olympics or the Chinese government’s human rights record. He later deleted the Twitter accounts.
China has banned foreign social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat and many more, while Chinese-owned TickTock is not banned abroad. (Not many people know that even TikTok is banned in China, but ByteDance’s only China-alternative Douyin is approved and, of course, widely censored by Beijing.)
The experience of using the so-called Internet in China is completely different from using it outside of China.
I have written about Russia’s growing isolation from the global Internet and the aggressive blocking of not only websites, but also messaging services such as Telegram, VPN and other resources.
Other governments – including North Korea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam and Myanmar – also maintain the national intranet.
Why Splinternet is more divided now
While Russia has been moving towards secession like China for years, the nation’s invasion of Ukraine, then the irresistible sanctions and the response of the Russian government basically ended the work of creating a very different Russian Internet.
Silicon Valley companies, including Apple, Google, Airbnb and many more, have come out of Russia. Microsoft has scaled operations and blocked Windows downloads in Russia.
And while foreign technology companies are pulling in, Russian regulators are pushing: the Russian government has banned Twitter, Facebook and most outside media websites. Google’s Russian affiliate has filed for bankruptcy this month because of steps Moscow has taken to make it impossible to do business in the country.
The Russian government was working to isolate the country from the rest, but the conflict in Ukraine has accelerated and strengthened that trend.
Over the past year, two major technology keywords have described platforms that will most likely create additional splinters in the web: “Metavers” and “Web 3.”
The book “Parallel metaversBy Nina Jiang, persuasively argue that the so-called “metavers” will become a reality “many of the existing metavers and share features parallel to the current Internet such as ‘market dominance, monopoly practice, wall gardening and user data manipulation.’
(I made a similar argument a few months ago.)
And in the wake of the Russian disconnection from the global Internet, Web3 advocates have become vocal about adding splinternet avoidance to the list of Web3 facilities. One such advocate said that “Web 3 applications based on decentralized public blockchains like Ethereum, Avalanche or Solana are open to everyone,” and so they are “uncensible.”
This is breathtakingly innocent. Uncensible, maybe. Blocked, of course. But above all, the public blockchain exposes users to the authoritarian government, who use it could threaten to imprison him.
The piece links the “ownership” of social networks to censorship and splinternet, which is nonsense. China and other authoritarian governments ban Twitter and Facebook because they allow freedom of speech because they are not owned by billionaires.
The central flaw of all Web3 advocacy is the unimaginable notion that everyone – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Cisco, and thousands of other companies; Government is democratic, authoritarian, and all kinds of it; And billions of complacent users – advocates will go with the vague, insecure and risky Web3 view of the minority.
In reality, Web3 is a further splintering agent, as some users will use blockchain, tokenized, and distributed applications instead of conventional apps, and most will continue to use so-called Web2. Web3 will not replace the web, it will create an alternative web – the definition of splinternet.
Another growing trend involves increasing legal control over what is permitted within political boundaries. An example that comes to mind here in Europe (I’m in France right now) is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and similar laws in Europe. Admirable goals of protecting user privacy have placed a burden on individual global websites, which many feel is not worth the hassle. As a result, a large number of news sites have been blocked in Europe – the menu of news sources inside Europe is different than outside Europe. And there are many more examples.
To counter the splinternet trend, the United States issued a global declaration in April to counter “digital authoritarianism”, a document signed by 61 countries, seeking an “open, free, global, interchangeable, reliable and secure”. Internet. I wish you good luck, 71 countries.
The document essentially finds governments that oppose splinternet to make a disobedient commitment to the goals of a single open Internet, while having no effect on the majority of countries that actively divide the Internet.
Will such empty gestures persuade China, Russia and other IP separatist countries to rejoin the open worldwide Internet? Will they force a single metavers on all companies and all countries? Will they ban Web3 or will everyone need it to keep web users using the same technology?
No, they will not do any of these.
Thinking about how Splinternet is going
Splinternet is here to stay, and it’s good to assume that splintering will continue.
The biggest problem is that there are billions of people – at least – who do not have access to anything like the global Internet. And it is a violation of their rights (especially Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
Another problem is when knowledge is blocked, interaction is blocked and business is blocked. It makes the world a smaller place for everyone.
Filter bubbles, walled gardens, authoritarian censorship and other factors that push people to the Internet put unwanted restrictions on the flow of information, which harms everyone.
All businesses can do is work hard to establish a presence in all closed “internet” that makes sense for that business, and not assume that posting on the web means having access to the world.
From now on, we should give up the dream of one-global-internet pipe. It’s not going to happen. Metavers will not protect us. And Web3 won’t.
Instead, embrace the hard reality that there are so many internet and a lot of work to do to access those minds and markets.
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