It is clear that the threat of the splinternet will result in a worse experience for users of the internet, due to issues such as censorship.
On March 5 2022, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine back in February that year, the Russian government, through the Roskomnadzor, began to block access to social media platforms like Facebook. These actions are due to the Russian government “broadening efforts to control the spread of information on the invasion of Ukraine and to move against independent news sources” (Milmo, 2022). Moves against news sources include bans on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America website.
This particular example of censorship from Russia shows the increasing relevance of one concept to characterise the current state of the internet – the splinternet. Apart from Russia’s bans during its invasion of Ukraine occurring so soon after their Sovereign Internet Law in 2019 – which gave the Russian government the ability to separate Russia from the rest of the Internet, the threat of the internet fracturing due to factors such as diverging goals between nation-states is very real – and this can be seen with other countries too. Such censorship will also ultimately result in user experiences getting worse on the internet.
The Origin of the Splinternet
The origin of the term “splinter-net” came from Clyde Wayne Crews, who first used the term back in 2001 to describe his concept of “parallel Internets that would be run as distinct, private, and autonomous universes” (Kumar, 2001). At the time, Crews had posited the splinternet as a positive thing, asking the question of:
“How about more Internets, not more regulations?”
The idea was providing different groups with their own internet that is sectioned away from other groups in a population. With this in mind, it could be argued that the splinternet is a good thing for users.
However, this argument quickly falls apart when one considers that the term has begun to be co-opted and used to describe how the internet’s status as a globe-spanning network is being threatened. The is because the rationale behind the splinternet according to Professor Zhaozhe Wang, actually “dovetails with nation-states’ pursuit of digital sovereignty, the ideology that the governing bodies of a state exercise authority over information circulating into and within the network boundaries” (Wang, 2023, pp. 1-2). This means that the reasoning for a splintered internet from Crews has been seen by countries as a way to enforce their sovereignty online – something that is usually not able to be done on a medium that has been historically free. This threat is also very possible as Robert K. Logan and Mira Rawady in their 2021 Book “Understanding Social Media: Extensions of Their Users” mentioned that “the mechanism for Internet censorship on a national level is not difficult to achieve as networks are highly (centralised) in most countries” (Logan and Rawady, 2021, p. 171). This explains the fact that at least 35 countries have begun to try and cut themselves off from the global internet, according to technology-focused YouTuber Marton Barcza (TechAltar) Part of these 35 countries include China and Iran.
The Splinternet in Effect in China and Iran
In China, the splinternet can be seen through the effects of The Great Firewall. The Firewall has a critical role in the country’s internet censorship, as it blocks access to selected foreign websites and concepts/events seen as undesirable by the government. This type of censorship negatively affects users in China, especially those part of marginalised groups – as safe spaces for groups such as the LGBT community, are becoming harder to find under the current regime. The evidence of such negative effects can be seen with how many young gay men in China feel the need “to articulate queer desires that are marginalised, if not silenced, in China’s restrictive communication environment…(by jumping the Wall)” (Song and Wu, 2023, pp. 3).“Great Firewall of China” by chidorian is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
In the case of Iran, the government decided to focus on content filtering – the controlling, restriction of access to, and blocking of access to content on the internet, such as social media platforms. Hamid R. Jamali and Pria Shahbaztabar mentioned in 2010 that the effects of such filtering on the behaviour and emotions of people is very negative – for both the user and the regulators. This is due to the fact that such filtering ends up “stimulates (people’s) curiosity and they become more determined to access the content”, and that such “filtering causes several negative emotions (e.g. anger, disgust, sadness and anxiety)…(due to) the inability to access information but the feeling of being controlled and not having freedom” (Jamali and Shahbaztabar, 2017, p. 408). In Iran, the effects of content filtering can be seen in this way as Farid Shirazi mentioned in a 2010 study that in Iran, “some bloggers have and are using pseudonyms to avoid prosecution or other social problems” (Shirazi, 2010, p. 64). Aside from the use of anonymous identities, Iranian users have begun to use VPNs, especially in the aftermath of protests in 2022.“panda vpn” by TheBetterDay is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
This was also the case in China, with VPNs being used to access foreign websites. Ultimately, China and Iran shutting themselves off from the rest of the global net could be disastrous for users both in and outside of those networks as it could “widen the digital and human rights divide between Western nations and those adopting (decentralised Internet Infrastructure) technologies” as such infrastructure can “enable countries to decouple or disconnect from the current global internet…thus disenfranchising their citizens from global communication, access to information and trade” (Hoffmann, Lazanski, and Taylor, 2020, p. 253). Since not everybody can use or are even aware of VPNs, an increasing divide is possible.
The Decline of User Experience
Looking at China and Iran, it is clear that internet restrictions have resulted in worsened user experiences for the people there. Because of this, it is possible that such issues with content from countries may lead to internet platforms deciding to change the content they present to the public in order to stop censorship and filtering. This could also worsen user experience. Logan and Rawady once described the splinternet as leading into “a lowest- common-denominator medium hosting only the most universally acceptable (i.e., blandest) content” (Logan and Rawady, 2021, p. 170). This could very well be the future content that can be for users not just in China and Iran, but in countries such as Australia and the United States too – content that is universal but safe, in order to placate governments prone to censoring things they see as sensitive. Such a possibility is even more likely with the root cause becoming more and more prevalent, since the Freedom House in 2022 published a report that found that more than two thirds of internet users in the world are living in countries that restrict freedom of expression online, showing that the splinternet is a very real phenomenon that is threatening the experience of users. This report is even more worrying since, as a 2016 report by the same organisation found that internet freedom was also in decline for that year, and for the sixth year in a row at the time.
Fortunately, VPNs and the like have allowed for a way to combat this issue, and it is already being used in China and Iran. This is because VPNs can protect users by encrypting their data and hiding their IP addresses to mask their location and activities from governments. So while the splinternet has resulted in worsened experiences for users, people have found methods to resist censorship. This was seen in Iran in 2022, when people went out to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini. To evade censorship, people began to post shorter clips than usual and blur faces of protesters to protect their identities. In response to the government censoring them online to prevent their messages being spread, the people began to censor their identities to prevent themselves from being caught.
Apart from that, VPNs online have also allowed for censorship to be bypassed and have allowed people in China and Iran to access content that they could not see otherwise. VPNs, when used enough, have also succeeded in ensuring that companies could not censor and block off content to make it exclusive to certain countries. Netflix in 2015 admitted that they will not block VPNs due to the sheer number of users, which meant that people can use them to access content that are technically only ‘exclusive’ in other countries. With this in mind, good user experiences can be preserved if efforts to fracture the internet are met with enough opposition and if such opposition is possible enough. The internet belongs to all people and is a global network – and no country should try to splinter that apart.“Mahsa Amini #1” by alisdare1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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