Thirty-one years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee shared his vision for the future, entitled “Information Management: A Proposal.” The concept would lead to the World Wide Web and transform our lives. It was designed to be a great leveller that would empower everyone to access and share information. The opportunity of enabling the entire planet to seamlessly collaborate and tear down geographical and cultural boundaries helped us reimagine the art of the possible.
Unfortunately, we lost our way and largely forgot the original vision for a worldwide web and the free exchange of information. Websites now offer free content in exchange for our personal data. Many users have traded their privacy for convenience. An increasing number of countries desperately cling to their digital sovereignty and even limit access to foreign sites and services beyond their national firewall.
Bots lock us in echo chambers and feed our inherent unconscious biases with misinformation to keep us endlessly doom scrolling. Polarized politics created a divided society that has inevitably fragmented and divided the internet too. The geographical borders that tech tore down are being rebuilt creating a fragmented and divided internet that limits access to information. Welcome to the Splinternet.
The politics of the ‘splinternet’
The rise of digital authoritarianism now stretches far beyond China’s Great Firewall and Russia’s stringent censorship protocols. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he wanted a clean internet and India revealed it was building its own internet, it appears we are on course to split the internet as we know it.
The clash between tech and governments was also highlighted when tech giants Facebook and Google went toe to toe with the Australian government. Tensions raised due to the subject of how publishers are paid for news articles and content, Google famously threatened to remove its free services from the country. A timely reminder if one was needed that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
In Europe, many U.S. news websites are already blocked by publishers who would rather exit the region than redesign a website to meet GDPR requirements.
Despite its best intentions, GDPR has also negatively impacted the user experience of browsing the web.
It can feel like every website visit includes the need to close cookie warning popups. Maybe the free and open internet was an illusion all along and the Splinternet has been here for longer than many realize.
Why Splinternet is bad for business
The so-called Splinternet creates a digital divide where national or regional borders determine the limits of free information. But where does this leave businesses? Where they store international data and how they move it quickly becomes complex when each country is playing by a different set of rules.
Many years have passed since Mark Cuban declared that data was the new oil. Now more than ever, it’s data-driven decision-making that can help influence purchasing decisions and increase profits. With an increasing number of internet-only based organizations becoming heavily reliant on data, many will have to rethink their business model if they lose access to customer data in certain regions.
Complex regulations and stringent new policies will also make many leaders question the hassle of operating in some countries. Consumers will lose out too. There needs to be an alternative to completely withdrawing from an entire region or dealing with huge fines. But getting all nations to agree on a common global framework is not going to happen anytime soon.
Who controls information controls the world
Tech companies have been moving much quicker than the regulatory regimes designed to keep them in check. Here in 2021, a handful of companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon largely control the flow of information. The fact that Mark Zuckerberg has access to information that users share, receive and communicate via messaging services on Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger should set off a few alarm bells.
As global tensions rise, it’s easy to see why many countries do not want to give up data consisting of conversations and browsing history to tech companies in other countries that will also sell it to the highest bidder. In the U.S., six corporations control 90% of the information broadcast through media outlets, further highlighting the illusion of choice wherever you live in the world.
As the blurred lines between on and offline begin to disappear, many nations realize that their sovereignty in the physical world does not exist in the digital space. A handful of tech companies have been controlling how their user’s shop, socialize, and even what content they see when they reach for their smartphones.
Until now, tech moved quicker than the regulators and has become more powerful than governments.
World leaders are now battling to regain control of their countries and choosing how they govern their people and local businesses. The move towards the Splinternet is just one of many examples of the global battle to control the flow of information.
The vision for a worldwide web was to remove inequality and empower citizens. But it’s beginning to look like an illusion. When we turn off our devices, the fragmented and divided internet that we see before us is arguably a dark reflection of our society. It’s no longer about how we got here, but how we can understand the impacts of technology on our lives and reassess how the internet is governed worldwide. The dream of building a better and fairer world is still very much alive, but how we get there is a story for another day.