Hugo Zylberberg is a fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. You can follow him @hugozylb.
Several high-profile reports have recently lamented the fragmentation of the internet, generally described as a series of technical standards, proprietary platforms, and government policies that restrict the flow of data online or the type of online content that can be accessed in a country. The World Economic Forum recently warned about the “danger of splintering” the internet, which could hinder “the internet’s enormous capacity to facilitate human progress.” Similarly, the Global Commission on Internet Governance warns of a possible future where governments fail to keep the internet open and inclusive, leading to loss of global GDP.
It should come as no surprise that people from different sociocultural backgrounds and countries disagree on the norms and institutions that should govern the internet. Internet fragmentation is a by-product of three billion users using the same platform with another three yet to be connected. Instead of promoting a single unified internet, policymakers, academics, civil society groups and businesses should work to ensure that the various fragments that emerge remain compatible.
Indeed, most internet users today don’t interact with a global internet. The world is fragmented into different cultures, languages, and ideologies and these differences are reflected on the internet. Many users in sub-Saharan Africa experience an internet with lower speeds than in other parts of the world, which prohibits bandwidth-intensive uses like video streaming. Many in Myanmar, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand claimed to be using Facebook more than the internet according to a 2015 survey, seemingly unaware that one relies on the other. Many behind the Great Firewall of China don’t know of a world that includes Facebook or Google.
In some cases, the internet’s fragmentation stems from legitimate cultural differences. Europeans can’t buy—or in some cases, access—Nazi memorabilia online and can remove their names from search results due to a different conception of free speech and privacy than in the United States. Other types of fragmentation should be challenged, such as the gender divide where women experience more online sexual harassment and abuse than men.
As developing countries expand internet access domestically, countries with considerable internet penetration should focus less on uniformity (e.g. how can countries with low internet penetration adopt our standards?) and more on compatibility (e.g. how can countries with high and low internet penetration make standards interoperable?). For instance, the Privacy Shield on the flow of personal data between the United States and the European Union aims to develop compatibility between both approaches to privacy, rather than trying to impose one approach over another. Future free trade agreements or mutual legal assistance treaties should become occasions to understand how legitimate national regulations can be compatible. Trying to impose culturally-dependent standards on partner countries simply increases the risks of rising cyber powers adopting authoritarian models of internet governance incompatible with the multistakeholder approach.
Instead of operating from the perspective that everyone should adopt the standards of mostly Western, mostly white and mostly male internet users, academics—with the hope of informing policymakers and tech companies—should turn to the more interesting question of when, if ever, fragmentation and different approaches to internet policy can be legitimate: when can Russia or the European Union legitimately implement some form of data localization? When can companies such as airlines or insurance companies legitimately offer different price schemes to different customers based on personal data they have collected? When can Facebook or Twitter legitimately use automated tools to delete content without human intervention? Academics need to explore these questions to inform a healthier public debate departing from the “one internet” ideology.
The ideological posture defending one global internet obscures the legitimate solutions that different places will find to some of the tangible economic, social or security issues raised by digitalization. Academics, policymakers and tech companies should begin to question the legitimacy of fragmentation on a case-by-case basis rather than rejecting it altogether. Some internet fragmentation will be legitimate and necessary given the social and cultural differences between internet users. Only by recognizing this will sustainable solutions that apply on a global scale be found.