Splinternet

Great Firewall

The splinternet (also referred to as ‘cyber-balkanization’) is a characterization of the Internet as splintering and dividing due to various factors, such as technology, commerce, politics, nationalism, religion, and interests. China erected a ‘Great Firewall’ to restrict the informational sources its citizens have access to. The U.S. and Australia, are discussing plans to create a similar systems to block child pornography or weapon-making instructions.

Clyde Wayne Crews, a researcher at the Cato Institute, first used the term in 2001 to describe his concept of ‘parallel Internets that would be run as distinct, private, and autonomous universes.’ Crews used the term in a positive sense, but more recent writers, like Scott Malcomson, a fellow in New America’s International Security program, use the term pejoratively, describing a threat to the internet’s status as a globe-spanning network of networks.

In addition to political influences, splinternet effects can result from new devices using different standards. Journalist and author Doc Searls described a ‘growing distance between the ideals of the Internet and the realities of dysfunctional nationalisms,’ which contribute to the various, and sometimes incompatible standards that often make it hard for search engines to interpret their data. He notes that ‘it all works because the Web is standardized. Google works because the Web is standardized.’ However, as new devices incorporate their own ad networks, formats, and technology, many are able to ‘hide content’ from search engines.’

Others, including information manager Stephen Lewis, describe the causes primarily in terms of the technology ‘infrastructure,’ leading to a ‘conundrum’ whereby the Internet could eventually be carved up into numerous geopolitical entities and borders, much as the physical world is today.

Many of the new ‘gadgets have a ‘hidden agenda’ to hold you in their ecosystem.’ Writer Derek Thomson explains that ‘in the Splinternet age, ads are more tightly controlled by platform. My old BlackBerry defaulted to Bing search because (network operator) Verizon has a deal with Microsoft. But my new phone that runs Google Android software serves Google ads under apps for programs like Pandora.’ Vendor lock in is an increasingly common way for these companies to increase revenues through targeted advertising to their own proprietary user base.

On the political front, a survey conducted in 2007 by a number of large universities, including Harvard, found that Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia filter a wide range of topics, and also block a large amount of content related to those topics. South Korea filters and censors news agencies belonging to North Korea.

‘Foreign Policy’ writer, Evgeny Morozov, questioned whether ‘the Internet brings us closer together,’ and, despite its early ideals, whether it would ‘increase understanding, foster tolerance, and ultimately promote worldwide peace.’ He argued that the opposite may be happening. There are more attempts to keep foreign nationals off certain Web properties, for example, digital content available to U.K. citizens via the BBC’s iPlayer is ‘increasingly unavailable to Germans.’ Norwegians can access 50,000 copyrighted books online for free, but one must be in Norway to do so.

According to Morozov: ‘Tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook are U.S. companies that other governments increasingly fear as political agents. Chinese, Cuban, Iranian, and even Turkish politicians are already talking up ‘information sovereignty’ a euphemism for replacing services provided by Western Internet companies with their own more limited but easier to control products, further splintering the World Wide Web into numerous national Internets.’

Organizations such as the OpenNet Initiative were created to monitor and report on internet filtering and surveillance practices by nations. Somewhat ironically, their book on the subject was reportedly censored by the U.N. with a poster removed by U.N. security officials because it mentioned China’s ‘Great Firewall.’ In 2010, Google chose to pull its search engines and other services out of China in protest of their censorship and the hacking of Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese activists.

Other countries, besides China, also censor Internet services: Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran’s press situation, for example, as ‘Very serious,’ the worst ranking on their five-point scale. Iran’s Internet censorship policy is labeled ‘Pervasive’ by the OpenNet Initiative’s global Internet filtering map, and the worst in the ranking. In 2010, they added Turkey and Russia to their ‘under surveillance’ list regarding Internet censorship, and warned other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Belarus and Thailand, also ‘under surveillance’ status, to avoid getting transferred into the next ‘Enemies of the Internet’ list.

In 2013, former United States CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden provided ‘The Guardian’ with documents revealing the existence of far-reaching espionage systems installed by the NSA at critical junctions where Internet traffic is aggregated. As various world governments have learned the extent to which their own communications have been compromised, concerns have been raised that these governments will erect sovereign networks so as to isolate their traffic from NSA spying programs. Later that year, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff announced plans to create a ‘walled-off, national Intranet”.’

Internet access has also been blocked for reasons of religion. In 2007, and again in 2010, Pakistan blocked the video sharing website Facebook and YouTube, reportedly along with search engine Google, and Wikipedia, to contain what it described as ‘blasphemous’ and ‘un-Islamic’ material. The Church of Scientology recommended Internet censorship as a method of defending itself against what it said were a constant campaign of abuse by the hacktivist group ‘Anonymous,’ along with ‘misinformation’ and ‘misrepresentation’ in the media. In 2009 it asked the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Freedom of Religion and Belief to restrict access to web sites it believes incites ‘religious vilification.’

Splintering of the Internet community can also occur when members of specific interest groups use the Internet to exclude or avoid views that contradict their own cherished beliefs and theories. Called Cyberbalkanization (filter bubbles), it refers to the division of the Internet or the world wide web into sub-groups with specific interests (digital tribes), where the sub-group’s members almost always use the Internet or the web to communicate or read material that is only of interest to the rest of the sub-group. The term may have first been used in an MIT paper by Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson that was published in late 1996. The concept takes its name from the Balkans, a part of Europe that was historically subdivided by languages, religions and cultures.

In his 2001 book ‘Republic.com,’ Cass Sunstein argued that cyberbalkanization could damage democracy, because it allows different groups to avoid exposure to one another as they gather in increasingly segregated communities, making recognition of other points of view or common ground decreasingly likely. The commentator Aleks Krotoski feels that Jihadist groups often use the Internet in this way.

Despite the concerns of cyberbalkanization, there is mixed evidence that it is actually growing. One Wharton study found that internet filters can create commonality, not fragmentation. However, this study primarily focused on music recommendation algorithms, and openly states that more research is required surrounding other domains (e.g. news, books, fashion). Another study found that ideological segregation of online news consumption is low in absolute terms, higher than the segregation of most offline news consumption, and significantly lower than the segregation of face-to-face interactions with neighbors, co-workers, or family members. The study notes that an important caveat, however, is that none of their evidence speaks to the way people translate the content they encounter into beliefs, which may be a larger factor in the problem these types of studies seek to address.

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