ISLAMABAD: Concern has been growing for the past two years that the global public internet may splinter into a series of bordered cyberspace segments, according to a white paper on ‘internet fragmentation’ published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Saturday.
Troubling trends have emerged that could endanger the openness and consistency of the internet’s underlying infrastructure and raise barriers around some of the content and transactions it conveys. Unfortunately, there is no consensus about the nature, scope and potential impact of this fragmentation, much less how the problem can be best addressed.
To help build a shared understanding and advance the emerging conversation about this global challenge, the WEF’s global challenge on the future of the internet initiative invited three experts: William J. Drake, international fellow and lecturer at University of Zurich, Switzerland; Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, USA; and Wolfgang Kleinwachter, Prof for international communication policy and regulation at University of Aarhus in Denmark to produce a white paper that lays out the issues.
The report concludes that meeting the challenge of internet fragmentation will require vigilance, analysis and international cooperation involving all stakeholders.
The most common imagery of “governmental fragmentation” is of the global public internet being divided into digitally bordered “national internets”. Movement in the direction of national segmentation could entail establishing barriers that impede internet technical functions, or block the flow of information and e-commerce.
For many in civil society, fragmentation seems to refer instead to the spread of government censorship, blocking, filtering and other access limitations, as well as to proprietary platforms and business models that in some measure impede end-users’ abilities to freely create, distribute and access information.
Authors of the white paper say that there is a growing sense in many quarters that this extraordinary technology that has been a critically important source of new wealth creation, economic opportunity, socio-political development and personal empowerment is experiencing serious strains and even dangers.
As the internet became a commercial service and was adopted by the private sector, legitimate interest in protecting computing assets from access by the “outside world” led to the design and implementation of firewalls that could filter traffic at the packet level.
The report says that over 3 billion internet users live not in cyberspace, but rather in physical spaces overseen by governments with varying legal systems and policies. All virtual communication is enabled via physical servers that are located in concrete places and have to operate under the jurisdictions of host countries.
While the military and intelligence establishments of countries like the US began to think about the interplay between the global internet and national security in the 1990s, most governments did not really focus on the matter until the beginning of this century.
The terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001, in the United States proved to be catalytic. At the national level, many governments took cues from the US ‘Patriot Act’ legislation and began to elaborate policies, although there was no shared global understanding about the precise boundaries and conduct of national security protections.
In the years to follow, the range and diversity of cyber attacks grew which further led many governments to develop “national cyber security strategies”.
Many governments began to treat national security as a concept that included and justified the control of political communications and cross-border content more generally.
The Arab Spring that begun in 2010, offered a significant example of how the internet can help people organise for political change.
Accordingly, some governments concluded that there was a need for more control over internet communications, and perhaps even the need to centralise connections to allow for the termination of all internet connections at a single point, as several Arab countries had done.
Legislation introduced in the US Senate in 2010 to require an “internet kill switch” was not passed, but it helped foster a line of thought within some governments.
All this deepened the trends towards the spread of restrictive national laws and practices to block online content and the use of social networks in countries like Turkey, Iran, China, Pakistan, Russia, the former Asian Soviet republics, and many others.
In the name of strengthening national security, more states built defensive “walls” of varying widths and heights around their territories and sought to channel internet communications via a limited number of gateways that could be more easily controlled.
The 2013 Snowden revelations strengthened the drive, and the mistrust by some governments was extended also to US companies that operate globally, from Facebook and Google to Amazon and Apple.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2016