We’ve come to accept the internet as a standard part of life, and as something as ubiquitous, unchanging, and universal as the very air we breathe. But in the near future, we may be forced to deal with the ramifications of an internet “split,” and the sooner we prepare for that bifurcation, the better.
Eric Schmidt’s vision of Chinese division
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and executive chairman of Alphabet, recently attended a private event in San Francisco. There, when asked about the possibility of a “fractured internet” in the future, Schmidt contended: “I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.”
Schmidt describes China as a hotbed of internet-based economic activity, with enormous, impressive companies and dynamic new services intended for the Chinese population, but warns that there may be downsides to China being such a dominating force. He says, “I think you’re going to see fantastic leadership in products and services from China. There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc.”
So what would a bifurcated internet look like, under this type of vision? Up until now, the internet has been largely independent and self-sustaining, with a global reach. Its protocols have been heavily standardized, with an open-source base that can be copied and followed indefinitely, and processes like the creation and transfer of domain names have been almost universally accepted. The “internet” as we know it has resisted any variation to these core standards, and has evaded any attempts by a government to issue new rules and regulations.
Now, the internet has become so powerful that governments, companies, and organizations want to exert more control and influence over its direction. Despite an entire generation of adults having grown up with the internet, it’s still a relatively new technology, and other countries may want the chance to oversee and/or control its next generation.
According to this vision, China may start developing its own protocols, its own standards for domain name creation and transfer, its own entry points and distribution systems, and most importantly, its own rules and regulations. Based on what we know about the Chinese government and internet today, that system would likely involve a tremendous degree of censorship and control.
Some American companies, including Google, may already be preparing for such a transition. For example, Google has come under fire recently for developing “Project Dragonfly,” a secret search engine project that lends itself to the type of censorship that the Chinese government might want to exert. If China wants its own internet to control and self-censor, Google is ready to play ball.
The inevitability of a splintered internet
At this point, it’s fair to think about all the ways this is bad for society, and the free and open internet. Global connectivity has been all we’ve known of the internet, and it’s been pretty great—revolutionaries in different countries get access to information and communication they may not otherwise get, you can shop and buy products from around the world, and for the most part, you can get content from almost anywhere. A segmented internet would skew the information available to certain populations, and potentially make it harder to connect and access foreign materials.
But a splintered version of the internet was always inevitable, and could even be beneficial in the long term. Remember, the internet as we know it is based around protocols and standards that were developed decades ago, before anyone could have guessed just how far-reaching the technology would be—both in terms of how many countries it reaches and in terms of how embedded it is in our lives. These protocols are due for a refresh, and it only makes sense that each country or region of the world should have some measure of control over how those protocols are implemented.
Governments have long felt threatened by the lack of regulation or power over the internet; dictatorships and fascist regimes fear their population may use this technology as a tool to rise up, while more established governments like those in the West simply want to make sure they understand how the tool is being used, and maintain the same level of control they have over other mediums of exchange. For example, the United States can inspect any mail being processed in the country, but can’t necessarily inspect email the same way.
While submitting to some level of localized government control would mean a sacrifice of certain freedoms (especially in countries where censorship is a looming threat), it could also mean a greater degree of protection. For example, the EU’s “right to be forgotten” has helped to define stricter privacy rights for individuals on the internet—a protection that can’t exist in a completely unregulated system. In developed, Western countries, a segmented, revised version of the internet would likely mean greater transparency, better standards for user privacy, and more consumer protections.
Right now, there are no announced plans for the internet to split in any way, but it’s only a matter of time before it does. China is the prime candidate to lead this split, since it has a vested interest in controlling the information its population consumes, it already has a strong base of internet companies, and there are strong (and rising tensions) between it and the United States. On top of that, its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could provide a blueprint for distributing its internet infrastructure beyond its own borders.
What should you be doing?
Let’s assume that the internet is going to split one day—as I predict it will. What should you be doing?
For starters, if you have important international communications to maintain, come up with a plan for how to maintain those communications openly after the split. Chances are, some familiar communication channels will remain open—but you might need a backup plan in case those messages are subject to review and/or censorship.
Otherwise, you can probably rest easy; it will be years before a split can be finalized, and when it is, the landscape of the internet won’t be so dramatically changed that it’s unrecognizable. This will be a slow, gradual transition, so you should have plenty of time to prepare for it.