In ancient times (before COVID-19) I grandly announced that the long-feared “splinternet” had arrived. And I made peace with the fact.
The splinternet idea is simple: instead of the single, global, open internet that early network pioneers intended, we actually now have multiple unconnected internets.
Exhibit A in my argument was the successful isolation of China by the Chinese government’s so called “Great Firewall of China,” along with aggressive internet censorship. The Chinese government not only censors domestically, but also takes advantage of the lack of controls abroad to censor globally, and to spread pro-Beijing propaganda and disinformation.
For example, during the Bejing Olympics, thousands of super active fake accounts and bots flooded the comments of any prominent Twitter user (including myself) criticising the Olympics or the Chinese government’s human rights record. Twitter later deleted the accounts.
China bans foreign social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat, and many others, while the Chinese-owned TikTok is not banned abroad. Many people don’t know that even TikTok is banned in China, but ByteDance’s China-only alternative Douyin is allowed and, of course, heavily censored by Beijing.
The experience of using the so-called internet in China is entirely unlike using it outside of China.
I also wrote about Russia’s increasing separation from the global internet and aggressive blocking of not only websites, but messaging services like Telegram, VPNs, and other resources.
Other governments — those in North Korea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Myanmar — also maintain what are basically national intranets.
Why the splinternet is even more splintered now
While Russia was moving toward China-like separation for years, that nation’s invasion of Ukraine, the overwhelming sanctions that followed, and the reaction to the reaction by the Russian government essentially finished the job of creating a very separate Russian internet.
Silicon Valley companies, including Apple, Google, Airbnb, and many others, essentially pulled out of Russia. Microsoft scaled back operations and blocked downloads of Windows in Russia.
And while foreign tech companies are pulling, Russian regulators are pushing: The Russian government banned Twitter, Facebook, and most outside media websites. Google’s Russia subsidiary filed for bankruptcy this month because the actions taken by Moscow have made it impossible to do business in the country.
Russia’s government had been working toward splintering that country away from the rest, but the conflict in Ukraine accelerated and solidified that trend.
The two major buzzwords in technology over the past year describe platforms that would very likely create additional splinters in the net: the “metaverse” and “Web3.”
The book “Parallel Metaverses,” by Nina Xiang, persuasively argues that the so-called “metaverse” will turn out to actually be “many metaverses existing in parallel and share features of the current internet such as ‘market dominance, monopolistic practices, walled gardens, and user data manipulation.’”
And in the wake of the Russian disconnection from the global internet, Web3 advocates have become vocal in adding splinternet avoidance to the list of Web3 benefits. One such advocate says that “Web3 applications based on decentralised public blockchains like Ethereum, Avalanche or Solana are open to everyone,” and so they’re “uncensorable.”
This is breathtakingly naive. Uncensorable, maybe. Blockable, definitely. But most of all, public blockchains expose users to authoritarian governments, who could threaten prison to anyone who uses it.
The piece goes on to link the “ownership” of social networks to censorship and the splinternet, which is nonsense. China and other authoritarian regimes ban Twitter and Facebook because they allow free speech, not because they’re owned by billionaires.
The central flaw in all Web3 advocacy is the inconceivable notion that everyone — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Cisco, and a thousand other companies; governments democratic, authoritarian, and every kind in between; and billions of complacent users — will go along with the vague, insecure and risky Web3 vision of the advocate minority.
In reality, Web3 is an agent of further splintering, as some users will use blockchain, tokenised and distributed applications instead of conventional apps, and most will continue to use the so-called Web2. Web3 won’t replace the web, it’ll create an alternative web — the very definition of splinternet.
The other growing trend involves increasing legal control over what’s allowed within political boundaries. One example that comes to mind here in Europe (I’m in France at the moment) is General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and similar legislation in Europe.
Laudable goals of protecting user privacy placed the burden on individual global websites, which many have found not worth the trouble. As a result, a great number of news sites are blocked in Europe — the menu of news sources is different inside Europe than outside Europe. And there are many other examples.
To counter the splinternet trend, the United States in April unveiled a global declaration to resist “digital authoritarianism,” a document signed by 61 countries, seeking an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure” internet. Good luck with that, 61 countries.
The document essentially gets governments that oppose the splinternet to make a nonbinding commitment to the goals of a single open internet, while having no impact on the majority of nations, including those actively splintering the internet.
Will such empty gestures convince China, Russia, and other IP separatist nations to rejoin the open global Internet? Will they force a single metaverse on all companies and all countries? Will they ban Web3 or require it of everyone to keep web users all using the same technologies?
No, they won’t do any of this.
How to think about the splinternet going forward
It’s a good idea to assume that the splinternet is here to stay, and the splintering will continue.
The biggest problem is that there are a couple billion people — at least — who do not have access to anything resembling the global internet. And that’s a violation of their rights (specifically Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
One other problem is that when knowledge is blocked, interaction is blocked and business is blocked. It makes the world a smaller place for everybody.
Filter bubbles, walled gardens, authoritarian censorship and other factors that push people into internet cul-de-sacs place undesirable limits on the flow of information, to the detriment of all.
What businesses can do is to work hard to establish a presence inside all the closed “internets” that make sense for that business, and not assume that posting on the web means the world has access.
From now on, we should let go of the one-global-internet pipe dream. It was never going to happen. The metaverse won’t save us. And neither will Web3. Instead, embrace the hard reality that there are many internets, and accessing those minds and markets is going to take a lot of work.