Internet at risk of becoming ‘Splinternet’

Read time 4min 30sec

A raft of governments’ proposals to control the Internet has left it at increasing risk of becoming the “Splinternet”, a less resilient, efficient, dynamic and open network.

This is according to non-profit organisation (NPO) Internet Society, which yesterday launched the “first ever toolkit to gauge the impact of regulation on the Internet”.

Founded in 1992 by Internet pioneers, the Internet Society is a global NPO working to ensure the Internet remains a force for good for everyone.

According to the organisation, the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit is a guide to help ensure regulation, technology trends and decisions don’t harm the infrastructure of the Internet.

It describes the Internet at its optimal state – a network of networks that is universally accessible, decentralised and open, facilitating the free and efficient flow of knowledge, ideas and information.

On the other hand, Splinternet – also referred to as cyber-balkanisation or Internet balkanisation – is a characterisation of the Internet as splintering and dividing due to various factors, such as technology, commerce, politics, nationalism, religion and divergent national interests.

The Internet Society says from the news of Belarus cutting off civilian access to parts of the Internet during protests over the disputed election, to the Trump administration introducing the “Clean Network programme” and banning Chinese apps, TikTok and WeChat, the idea of an open Internet is at risk.

In SA, there have also been some concerns raised about the proposed draft regulations to the controversial Films and Publications Amendment Act. The law is also referred to as the “Internet Censorship Act”, and the draft regulations are said to pose a grave threat to the constitutional right to freedom of expression in general, and freedom of the press in particular.

Up until this point, the Internet Society says there has been no tool to assess how proposed regulation and technology trends affect the Internet’s architecture.

It notes the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit is based on the newly-published paper, Internet Way of Networking (IWN): Defining the Critical Properties of the Internet, that explains how the Internet’s unique foundation is responsible for its strength and success.

It also identifies the critical properties that must be protected to enable the Internet to reach its full potential.

The five critical properties identified by the IWN are:

  • An accessible infrastructure with a common protocol – A “common language” enabling global connectivity and unrestricted access to the Internet;
  • An open architecture of interoperable and reusable building blocks – Open infrastructure with a set of standards enabling permission-free innovation;
  • Decentralised management and a single distributed routing system – Distributed routing enabling local networks to grow, while maintaining worldwide connectivity;
  • Common global identifiers – A single common identifier allowing computers and devices around the world to communicate with each other; and
  • A technology-neutral, general-purpose network – A simple and adaptable dynamic environment cultivating infinite opportunities for innovation.

The Internet Society says when combined, these properties form the unique foundation that underpins the Internet’s success and are essential for its healthy evolution.

The closer the Internet aligns with the IWN, the more open and agile it is for future innovation and the broader benefits of collaboration, resiliency, global reach and economic growth, it stresses.

“The Internet’s ability to support the world through a global pandemic is a good example of the Internet Way of Networking at its finest,” explains Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior vice-president for a strong Internet at Internet Society.

“Governments didn’t need to do anything to facilitate this massive global pivot in how humanity works, learns and socialises. The Internet just works – and it works thanks to the principles that underpin its success.”

Safeguarding Internet architecture

The NPO says the toolkit will serve as an important resource to help policymakers and technologists ensure trends in regulatory and technical proposals don’t harm the unique architecture of the Internet.

It explains why each property of the IWN is crucial to the Internet, and the social and economic consequences that can arise when any of these properties are damaged.

For instance, the toolkit shows how China’s restrictive networking model severely impacts its global reach and hinders collaboration with networks beyond its borders.

It also highlights how the US administration’s Clean Network proposal challenges the Internet’s architecture by dictating how networks interconnect according to political considerations rather than technical considerations.

“We’re seeing a trend of governments encroaching on parts of the Internet’s infrastructure to try and solve social and political problems through technical means,” says Hall.

“Ill-informed regulation can drastically alter the Internet’s fundamental architecture and harm the ecosystem that supports it. We’re giving both policymakers and Internet users the information and tools to make sure they don’t break this resource that brings connectivity, innovation and empowerment to everyone.”

See also