Twenty years ago, the internet emerged as a global playground where information was shared freely. Today, everyone has a different idea of how it should be regulated, by whom, and to what extent. What is the future of the Internet in the era where geopolitical manoeuvring often takes place in the virtual space? Security concerns, rising trade protectionism and censorship have been the key drivers behind “splintering” of the Internet. While this was already happening for several years before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has exacerbated the isolationist and security-focused tendencies of states even further. Are we witnessing the end of an era of a free and open internet, and if so, what is coming next?
Internet, the new frontier of national security
When we look for the biggest disruptors of the free Internet, China’s Great Firewall and Russia’s internet censorship law stand out as prime examples. However, they are by no means the only ones. Other attempts at creating parallel internets include Cuba’s Red Cubana network, Iran’s “halal net” and North Korea’s Bright Star. These splintered networks can either block free access to the global Internet, increase the barriers to finding objective information or create completely closed walled gardens. These limited but easy to control webs share one goal: controlling information flows in the name of national security.
Back in 2018, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, predicted we would see a bifurcation of the Internet into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by the United States. While American allies could keep using the same version of the internet and technology as the U.S., Schmidt predicted that other countries are likely to adopt China’s infrastructure — especially the roughly 70 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe that have pre-existing infrastructure deals with China. And although these alliances are more complex from within, there is no doubt that the emerging pattern as identified by Schmidt is happening.
In response to China’s expanding capabilities in cyberspace, the U.S. State Department created the Clean Network Program, which seeks to remove Chinese tech gear from infrastructure in the U.S. and its allies. After originally focusing on 5G equipment, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the program would ‘secure’ carriers, app stores, apps, cloud systems, and submarine cables. As the above-mentioned areas might represent the channels for the potential further splintering of the Internet into the American and Chinese-led models, the U.S. clearly wants to have them under control.
As critics of the Clean Network agenda point out, the program envisions significant changes to how the U.S. thinks about cyberspace. In response to the program, the Internet Society claimed that the “U.S., the country that funded the early development of the Internet, is now considering policies that would fracture it into pieces,” threatening to accelerate the “global momentum towards a ‘splinternet.’”
What’s next: Digital human rights, standard-setting & economics
The COVID-19 pandemic has emboldened Beijing to expand its use of digital technologies in the name of public health and safety. The crisis has provided a proof of concept for digital authoritarianism, showcasing that surveillance on such a large scale in an emergency situation can be feasible and effective. The post-pandemic geopolitical reality will therefore require coming to a broad, international consensus about how human rights apply in the digital age.
If tensions between the U.S. and China continue, there’s a risk that components built with American technology will not be compatible with those built by Chinese firms. That could embed the fracturing of the web at a hardware level, making it more difficult to combat in the future. As nations start to implement 5G infrastructure, questions of network interoperability will become increasingly relevant.
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind the economic consequences of creating a bifurcated Internet. If governments dictate how networks interconnect according to political considerations rather than technical factors, this can significantly impact the agility, resilience and flexibility of the Internet. Broader benefits of collaboration, global reach, and economic growth will be significantly threatened if we really were to reach a full-scale splinternet. Governments should therefore carefully gage the economic implications of whatever restrictions they want to impose on their local networks rather than just doing so for the sake of “sticking it” to a foreign power.
Future of Geopolitics in the Digital Era
Tech leaders have long warned that the Internet could come to an end if governments across the globe start blocking other countries’ websites and products, or began creating their own national “intranets”. The free and open ideals that built the world wide web seem to be increasingly at odds with the political agendas of governments across the globe. However, nothing can be changed about the fact that political wars are progressively being fought in the digital space. This calls for a fresh playbook delineating the basic rules of the game for all governments involved. The new guidelines should be based on the respect for digital human rights, interoperability principles fit for the interconnected global economy, and a solid economic rationale. Only then we can create a better future version of the Internet, where global power games can take place within reasonable limits.