Three decades after the launch of the world wide web, the reality looks increasingly fragmented, and at one time was looked at as a potential tech utopia.
There are now dozens around the world, divided not only by the kind of content they consider legal but also by the infrastructure they contain. The internet may feel ephemeral, but it relies on physical telecoms equipment, the sort of hardware that has been scrutinised in debates around national security.
Experts have warned about it for years and they dubbed it the splinternet. Katja Bego, principal researcher at the UK innovation foundation, said in 2016 that the internet is becoming more cordoned off. The time of the internet of fun and games, of unfettered access, is coming to an end. The gulf between different versions of the internet has only widened in the past half a decade due to geopolitical and trade tensions. The Balkanisation could cause higher prices and potentially hurting customer choice, as products are shut out of markets that consider them hostile. The issue is not just the costs that the splinternet imposes, but it is also the need to balance security risks with commercial interests.
The concept of the splinternet shows how the digital space has become crucial in interstate one-upmanship.
China's Great Firewall of Internet censorship has allowed for the growth of domestic tech titans that have suffered under Beijing's regulatory crackdown Battle lines are also being drawn in standard-setting forums such as the International Telecommunication Union. An Internet of Things - of connected devices built on Chinese standards could be mutually exclusive to US technologies, for example. That would force countries to choose between different tech stacks when it comes to powering their core digital infrastructure.
Beijing is not the only party looking to keep out of the way of external technology. Last year, the UK told mobile providers that 5 G equipment from Chinese tech group Huawei must be removed by 2027. Since the year 2019, Huawei has been on the entity list, a blacklist of companies, and affiliates, to which US firms can't sell any kind of technology without a license.
Software has been under growing restrictions, with India banning Chinese apps such as TikTok. The Indian Ministry of Information Technology deemed the apps to be detrimental to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order and Huawei's woes in the UK, as well as being forced to replace existing Huawei hardware, is one of the more obvious costs of the splinternet for both private companies and governments.
A year ago, even Borje Ekholm, Ericsson's chief executive, criticised Sweden's decision to ban Huawei, telling the Financial Times: For Ericsson and Sweden, we're built on free trade. We're built on the opportunity to trade freely. Ekholm said that slowing the 5 G roll out is a risk for the economy. The ability to constrict physical supply chains can affect companies in their domestic markets. In May 2020, the US government announced that it would tighten restrictions on access to microchips for Huawei and its subsidiaries, leading the company to say that the sanctions had put its survival at stake.
The costs of the splinternet can't be weighed in monetary terms. Protection of national security is vital in an age where digitisation is expanding across key sectors, even though the preparedness of critical systems remains unclear. In an increasingly interconnected world, core telecoms equipment can be used to deploy dangerous attacks.
There is a degree of uncertainty and flexibility to be expected in this decision-making. Security assessments of 5 G components can change significantly, but what is important is that governments are transparent and forthright when it comes to decisions. At least, the reason for revealing their reasons may be tedious, but at least shows that careful consideration has taken place.
Failing to do so plays into the other reason for the splinternet: geopolitical tussles for dominance between countries, mixed in with petty attempts to win over domestic audiences by displaying macho zeal. The combination of cyber security concerns with purely economic interests - for example, the search for better trade deals - is a danger that undermines the former.
The splinternet seems to be here to stay, but governments should not exacerbate it without good measure. Keeping out weaknesses from core sectors is laudable, but it also drives up costs for businesses and consumers to score political points, less so.