The Internet is not as limitless as it seems. Some are starting to call it “Splinternet”

The Internet is not as limitless as it seems. Some are starting to call it “Splinternet”

In 2021, Chinese-owned social media platform Cloudfare ranked TikTok as the most popular website on Earth, overtaking Google. Launched in 2016, the platform has revolutionized the small online video format, forcing most of its competitors to integrate the format into their own apps. Despite its massive popularity, the app remains out of reach of millions of people around the world – mostly thanks to their governments. Take India, for example, where the app was banned along with 58 other apps just days after a border dispute with China.

The TikTok ban in India is among the high-profile examples of an internet that carries geopolitical weight. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when global internet use was still in its infancy, the technology was envisioned to enable the emergence of a new borderless utopia. In the online world, everyone is equal. Walls between states and societies will tear apart, and geopolitical struggles will become redundant in the digital realm. The thinking was that the Internet would usher in an information revolution whereby anyone in any part of the world could access all the knowledge in the world with a single click.

Two decades later, that vision is becoming increasingly distant. Not only has the Internet failed to radically transform international politics, it has become an element that enhances existing global relations instead. Far from ushering in an era without global borders, the Internet has become intertwined with global – and local – politics. In fact, rather than the Internet becoming redundant, geopolitics has affected the Internet so that it looks different in different regions. Indeed, we live in an era when technology commentators are increasingly using the term “splinternet” to describe the forces of the world migrating to their own, hyper-localized networks of the Internet.

Perhaps the most famous prototype of the splinternet is in China. In 2000, in a speech at John Hopkins University, then-US President Bill Clinton pointed out the potential for the Internet to usher in a new information age in China. “We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we really are an open society. Imagine how much it can change China,” Clinton said famously. In the years since, the Chinese government has kept — in an approach known as the Great Firewall — every major Western website blocked or censored. It is noteworthy that the country has a local alternative for each major application and website. In fact, China was already cracking down on US websites during Clinton’s speech, which he also acknowledged. However, he emphasized that those attempts would not succeed. “That’s kind of like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.”

In 2022, China isn’t the only country trying to keep the global internet at bay. Gillian C. York, an American free speech activist, notes how location often determines what information one can access on the Internet. Even something as simple as a map has different iterations depending on the area one might want to get to. Hence, Yorke writes, “The Pakistani user sees a sanitized version of Twitter, while the American user can access – as far as we know – any content they desire.”

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Bans, censorship, and firewalls are just some of the many ways countries use the Internet as a tool to guide their international – and domestic – policies. There are other, more dangerous ways in which states have sometimes rendered ineffective the Internet’s potential for bringing wild information to anyone on the Web. India, for example, kept the people of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir in an extended internet shutdown for more than a year after its decision to revoke Article 370 of the constitution. The extended internet ban was said to have been put in place to quell any protests that could occur following the government’s controversial move. The closure helped stop the passage of information from Kashmir to the outside world, and vice versa.

It is important to note here that the situation in Kashmir was not the first time that the Indian government decided to shut down the internet in a region. In fact, the world’s largest democracy has also been the two biggest internet shutdowns over the past four years. These lockdowns have often been used in conflict zones during protests against the government. Recently, state governments in India have also benefited from the lockdown during government job exams.

Moreover, the digital space is still unevenly tilted towards the Western world. Most social media is owned and operated by companies based in America, and they often operate in accordance with American laws and values. York notes that this often creates gray areas when dealing with issues such as terrorism. Sometimes, US definitions determine the global legitimacy of local political actors. Hence, “in many countries, groups designated as terrorist by the United States are legitimate political actors, and are active in local or national legislatures.”

It could also create a situation where countries that do not align with larger Western interests can simply be removed from the Internet. For example, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the latter asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a US-based organization that manages top-level domain names, to block Russia from accessing its systems. This, combined with other sanctions imposed on Russia, has prompted Russia to actively cut out Western servers and systems as it tries to engineer its own sovereign internet.

Other times, social media’s ignorance of local politics results in their inability to efficiently reduce extremist material circulating online in low-income countries. Or, even worse, social media groups may collude with the governments of these countries to get you to stay in business. For example, caste and Muslim hate speech and posts in India are rarely censored on these platforms. Hence, Meta or Twitter’s commitment to zero tolerance for hate online has very different definitions depending on the boundaries one has around it.

All this is not to say that the Internet has not democratized information and knowledge to a great extent. In fact, the Internet has on many occasions bypassed information blocks imposed by governments to bring people knowledge and content through simple tools such as VPN and torrents. Internet activity has also largely revolved around ensuring that data is decentralized using multiple servers and tools that protect privacy. However, these tools and bypass mechanisms are still vulnerable to attack by governments and corporations and are used by only a fraction of the digital population.

Thus, the world’s largest Internet population is still largely at the mercy of their local Internet networks. Or, one might say, they stay connected to their own networks.

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