What is splinternet? Internet fracturing explained

Anton P. | February 26, 2021

Splinternet refers to the prophecy about the internet gradually splitting into multiple and distinct entities. Dividing the global digital space into smaller units is not something we haven’t encountered. Consider the internet availability in China, where splinternet is not a prospect but a reality. Countries and political forces struggle to find common ground. Thus, conflicting ideas, rules, and traditions enforce the need for separate and uncooperative internet ecosystems. Governments attempt to back up splinternet as means to safer or cleaner internet. However, it contradicts the global and open internet principles. The arrival of the splinternet also directly relates to censorship, the loss of free speech, and information exchange.

Meaning of splinternet

Splinternet (cyberbalkanization) refers to the fragmented internet, a set of isolated pieces with communication barriers between them. If you cannot wrap your head around the notion of “fractured internet,” let us illustrate.

Founding principles of the digital space are openness and equal access to information. Over the years, comparisons depicted the internet as a borderless ecosystem in which ideas and cultures intertwined and connected. Splinternet opposes these core principles due to differing factors like technology, commerce, politics, religion, or nationalism.

Thus, splinternet means that we do not treat the internet as an integral entity. Instead, we divide it into smaller units, each following contrasting rules and presenting different information. While the idea behind splinternet might seem far-fetched, similar values and proposals continue to emerge.

To the highest degree, governments take the necessary tools to build virtual borders (as seen in China). Typically, country leaders limit or ban particular internet sites as a response to something they deem threatening. Political powers and tensions play a dramatic role, with regions attempting to shield themselves from potentially dangerous foreign influence. Thus, splinternet indicates that people from different backgrounds or access privileges see distinct versions of the internet.

Splinternet we see today

We might experience the effects of splinternet without even realizing it. In some cases, it all depends on our tendencies. A person from the US might use Google to find information online without giving it a second thought. However, a Russian citizen could turn to Yandex instead purely out of habit. It is relatively normal, as long as that selection is natural and not enforced artificially. There are also other cases of splinternet we see or have experienced in the past:

  • Websites going down until they adapt to GDPR guidelines. In 2018, thousands of popular websites became unavailable in most European countries. The reason behind this was the new data protection laws shielding netizens from data use without explicit consent. Web services reopened only after changing their traditional methods and adjusting their approach to EU citizens.
  • Network neutrality repealed in the US. The loss of net neutrality also enforced splinternet to an extent. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) gained the power to offer tiered services. The latter means that the quality and the speed of particular web services could depend on the sum consumers pay. Thus, net neutrality rollback can and potentially has divided the internet into fast and slow lanes.
  • Web services adjust to comply with region-specific rules. European citizens recently reported that some Facebook and Instagram features have disappeared. These changes came after Facebook fell under the jurisdiction of the ePrivacy directive. Therefore, it had to stick to solely providing the core features of its services.

Splinternet worldwide

China is undeniably one of the harshest examples of splinternet. The government strictly limits the free flow of information and dictates the rules for content available. Recently, China decided to prevent BBC World News from airing within China and Hong Kong. The reasoning behind this ban focused on BBC spreading untruthful and unfair information, conflicting with China’s national values. The heavily-censored country presents similar arguments for blocking an array of online services. For instance, the following services are unavailable in China:

  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Instagram
  • Amazon
  • The Guardian
  • Quora
  • NY Times
  • Dailymail
  • CBC
  • Netflix
  • Twitch

Splinternet ideas also thrive in Russia, especially after the introduction of Runet. The latter is essentially a version of the internet entirely controlled by the Russian government. It is not clear how Runet would operate, but experts note that it might resemble the systems in China. Furthermore, it is unclear when Russia will implement it due to the technical difficulties involved. However, Russia is no stranger to blocking services that do not comply with its interests. Recently, authorities issued warnings about blocking Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. The plans address the increased censorship of pro-Kremlin media and would assert dominance over western platforms.

However, the uncooperative division is not exclusive to countries enforcing heavy internet censorship. In 2020, the US became extremely agile to the Chinese influence. The government focused on the national security threats that some apps might pose to American citizens. Many experts highlighted that the US advances towards “cleaner web” support the idea of splinternet.

Other regions like Cuba, Turkey, and Iran also experiment with the concept of information sovereignty. Across the world, we see numerous decisions to ban or censor certain services. Thus, we witness a gradual move towards fragmented and divided internet. In some regions, the effects might be minimal. However, even subtle cues could evolve into different national and regional mini-internets.

Can you fight unjustified splinternet?

Some degree of splinternet is natural and unavoidable. Companies also lean towards addressing concerns particular governments express. For instance, Google shows a strong unwillingness to abandon specific markets. Google had built Dragonfly, a censored search engine for China, but to no avail. Facebook also attempts to maintain a grip on the EU market by remodeling its services. Nevertheless, the concept of splinternet is dangerous if taken too far.

Building infrastructures with isolation in mind can be a direct attack on people’s rights. Thus, the proclaimed attempts to defend national interests frequently relate to unjust censorship. Governments might not address the interests and security of their citizens. Instead, the splinternet could work as a barrier to stop the distribution of ideas that oppose or challenge regimes.

Journalists and human rights activists are the groups that censorship and, in turn, splinternet silences. By losing the worldwide internet and turning to independent infrastructures, we also halt cooperation between cultures. In such cases, a VPN can help you defend your rights in the digital world. This tool protects your privacy, digital creativity, and freedom of expression. Connecting to a VPN server might seem like a minor change to your browsing routine. However, it can unlock access to critical information and help you share your story with the world. By allowing people to disguise their physical locations, we continue to fight the ongoing battle against censorship and discrimination.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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yandexnet neutrality