Imagine a world in which there is no longer a global, democratised, non-discriminatory computer network connecting all countries. Imagine that instead of the internet, our common repository of information, services and communication tools was replaced by several disconnected blocs, each built around shared religions or geopolitical goals and completely walled off from each other.
The term for this phenomenon is “internet balkanisation” or “the splinternet”. And the reality is that it’s already begun.
If you’ve visited China, for example, you’ll be familiar with the “Great Firewall”, which prevents access to the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter. Chinese companies are also now required to retain all of their data within the country’s geographical boundaries.
In May 2018, the European Union introduced its Global Data Protection Regulation which, while intended to increase privacy protections for EU residents, has restricted some international websites. Other countries like Russia have gone down a similar path.
But while virtual private networks might be able to get you around geo-blocking, a VPN will be no good to you if the physical infrastructure you’re using is literally not connected to the outside world.
Such a situation already exists in Iran, which has built an entirely separate state-controlled National Information Network, dubbed “halal net”, completely cut off from the world wide web. Effectively an “anti-internet”, the NIN is intended to thwart US attempts at hacking and spying while also preventing the influence of American “soft power” in the form of Facebook and Google.
Elsewhere, the “BRICS” countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have begun constructing an undersea fibre optic cable network linking the five countries which, while ostensibly for telecommunications purposes, could be used to create an entirely independent network. The EU is also mulling a proposal to construct an EU-only internet walled off from the web.
The world war web
Fears of a web permanently splintered along geographical, ideological and commercial lines have grown in recent years following the 2013 revelations of widespread US spying, rising cyberwarfare and digital propaganda, and a global trend towards protectionism and nationalism.
And while it’s clear that the internet has already strayed from the ideal of a “free, open, creative space for everyone” envisioned by its founder Tim Berners-Lee, it’s not exactly certain just how far this fracturing could go.
In the most extreme scenario, the internet as we know it would cease to exist. In such a world, online activities we take for granted, like emailing an international friend or buying something from overseas, might no longer be possible.
The impact on businesses under such a scenario, meanwhile, could be dramatic. In a report from early 2018 titled Revitalizing Privacy and Trust in a Data-Driven World, PwC concluded that internet balkanisation “will change how companies do business”.
“This will likely reduce efficiency and, in a macro way, have some effect on the global economy,” the report continues. “Emerging approaches to cross-border data flows, nascent privacy rules and expanding regulation on data use worldwide all add up to an increasingly challenging path for companies to navigate toward success in the global digital economy.”
Unfortunately, global geopolitical and security tensions being what they are, a solution is not likely to be found easily. Mehdi Daoudi, CEO of digital intelligence company Catchpoint, argues the risk to global trade and political freedom is so great that the highest level intervention is required.
“This balkanisation needs to stop,” Mr Daoudi wrote in July. “I believe the job of addressing it warrants a UN-level effort.
“Cross-border commerce, the basic human right to information and an even global competitive playing field depend on a freely open, accessible internet for all.”