The western world’s internet doublespeak was on show at the United Nation’s (UN) 2022 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Discussions about internet fragmentation and the looming “splinternet” are not new. They usually focus on authoritarian states raising digital borders to separate their citizens from the “open, free, and secure” global internet advocated for by democratic countries. However, this month’s IGF showed that fragmentation is more complex. We need to reflect on what fragmentation looks like and examine the role that democracies are playing in this process.
For years, experts have pointed out the tensions inherent in liberal democracies’ idealized mantra of an “open, free, and secure” internet. More recently, a Council on Foreign Relations task force called for a recalibration of U.S. digital foreign policy on the basis that “the era of the global internet is over.” Nevertheless, the United States and other western democracies showed up to the IGF committed to the mantra of openness, all while advocating policy approaches which lead to forms of internet fragmentation. Given this tension, western democracies and others interested in a free and open internet need to make clear what forms of fragmentation are acceptable.
State of play: fragmentation across technical, user experience, and governance layers
“Avoiding internet fragmentation” was one of the five themes at the IGF. Tellingly, the IGF’s Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation was unable to find a shared definition of fragmentation through consultation, and instead released a framework laying out three types of fragmentation that different stakeholders identified: technical, user experience, and governance. This breakdown serves as a helpful lens through which to consider current trends.
There was agreement at the IGF that fragmentation of the internet’s technical layer, changes to internet infrastructure that prevent it from functioning interoperably across different end points, is the most important outcome to avoid. While several countries have moved to apply their geographic borders to cyberspace, IGF panelists noted that this type of fragmentation is not happening on a broad scale. The public core of the internet remains largely interoperable. However, concerns were raised that cracks in the user experience or governance layers could serve as a slippery slope to further technical fragmentation. Unfortunately, discussions made clear that fragmentation at these levels is well underway and driven, at least in part, by democracies.
User experience fragmentation
User experience fragmentation occurs when individuals have access to different online content depending on where they are in the world. This phenomenon is not exclusive to digital authoritarianism and is already an accepted feature in liberal democracies on a small scale, for example when you accept that your Netflix content will vary with location. These geographic controls are set to increase thanks to a wave of new or incoming online safety regulations in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
Decision makers are framing these controls as policy successes. The European Commission’s Margrethe Vestager celebrates the EU as a “regulatory superpower,” while the Australian government touts a “world-leading” online safety regime. The UK media regulator noted at IGF that, despite new coordination initiatives like the Global Online Safety Regulators Forum, harmonizing these different regulations may be neither possible nor desirable given the distinct sensitivities of local contexts (1:29:20). Most of these reforms are individually valuable, but it is notable that governments campaigning definitively against internet fragmentation are simultaneously requiring companies to distinguish between the “UK internet,” the “European internet,” and so on.
At the governance level, key players are adopting divergent approaches to preserving an open internet. On one hand, the United Nations is prioritizing consensus and working to reconcile diverse viewpoints through the development of a Global Digital Compact. The premium the United Nations places on finding consensus amongst member states can attract criticism as tolerating the lowest common denominator, most recently regarding its controversial selection of Ethiopia as IGF host country despite the government’s two-year internet shutdown in the Tigray region. On top of that, the United Nations' proliferation of internet governance-related initiatives risks (19:30) spreading efforts too thin and causing confusion.
In contrast, the United States and EU have shown they will explicitly split internet governance debates to defend democratic principles. The Declaration on the Future of the Internet, released in April 2022 and now signed by sixty governments, including the United States and many EU member states, was a controversial topic at the IGF. The Declaration demarcates a bright line between “likeminded” states and others. Representatives from the Global South and nongovernmental organizations criticized the declaration’s exclusionary language, non-consultative drafting process, and failure to involve civil society or the private sector. The Declaration’s exclusionary language may be a feature, not a bug: at the IGF, a U.S. government representative confirmed the Declaration “sets out to differentiate” between governments (49:20). Despite the rhetoric around creating an open internet, democracies have actively contributed to fracturing in the areas of user experience and governance.
A new narrative on fragmentation
Fragmentation among democracies is not comparable with fragmentation driven by authoritarian states. Democratic fragmentation on content moderation reflects a valid and unavoidable pivot to stave off digital harms at home and abroad. It is not sensible to avoid fragmentation between democratic states at all costs if that cost is an unacceptable harm to domestic populations or the dilution of core democratic principles in international discussions.
The issue lies in the gap between democracies deploying new policies while relying on old mantras. Regulations drifting apart will take a toll on democracies’ credibility and contribute to the authoritarians’ goal of spreading technical fragmentation across the world.
Democracies need to develop a best practice framework on internet fragmentation and adopt a new narrative that reflects the realities of today’s internet. The framework should address: the limited scenarios in which content and governance layer fragmentation is justified, the ways to minimize its impacts (such as coordination with other governments), and clarify the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable fragmentation. The framework should provide clear practical guidance to show that—while challenging—the right balance can be struck.
This should be a collaborative initiative that draws on the real-time lessons being learned in different democracies around the world (such as the UK’s recent change to the Online Harms Bill) to feed into the development of the UN’s Global Digital Compact, which will be presented in 2024. Individual democracies should then leverage this framework to drive stronger coordination between their domestic and foreign policy development processes when it comes to internet regulation. Taken together, these efforts will help restore credibility in the democratic vision of the future of the internet.
Zoe Hawkins was formerly an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, most recently worked as regulatory affairs manager for Amazon, and has previously advised the Australian government on foreign affairs and communications policy.