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Unraveling the Layers of Internet Fragmentation: A Deeper Dive Into Global Connectivity

During the ICANN79 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March 2024, the North America School of Internet Governance (NASIG 2024) convened with an over-encompassing theme, “Confronting Truth, Trust, and Hope in Internet Governance.” A pivotal panel discussion titled “Can We Survive Digital Fragmentation?” underscored the essentiality of global connectivity and the urgency to understand and address the layers of fragmentation impacting the internet’s universal fabric. The discussion was moderated by William Drake, and featured profound insights from panelists Mark Datysgeld, Pari Esfandiari, and Milton Mueller, each bringing a unique lens to the intricate concept of internet fragmentation.

Drake offered a brief background, explaining how the narrative of internet fragmentation has significantly evolved, transitioning from an obscure technical anomaly to a central concern in global internet governance dialogues. The Snowden revelations marked a turning point, unveiling the extent to which geopolitical forces could exert influence over the digital domain. This revelation sparked widespread debate about the potential for various forms of fragmentation—from technical protocols to user access and experience. As highlighted by the panel, the discourse around fragmentation has expanded to include not only governmental actions but also corporate behaviors that might restrict the open and interconnected nature of the Internet.

Datysgeld’s intervention spotlighted a critical distinction in the fragmentation debate: the divergence between the internet’s underlying technical infrastructure and the user experience. While protocols like TCP/IP ensure a baseline of connectivity, the actual digital experience varies widely across different geographic and socio-economic contexts. For Datysgeld, this disparity raises questions about the promise of a universally accessible and uniform internet and is a fragmentation. Mueller countered the notion of a homogenized user experience, asserting it as an undesirable outcome, highlighting the natural diversity of internet use as not indicative of fragmentation.

Esfandiari’s comments underscored the complexity of the Internet ecosystem, suggesting that understanding fragmentation requires a nuanced appreciation of the Internet’s layered structure and the interplay of diverse stakeholders. She argued against a binary understanding of fragmentation, suggesting instead that the internet’s state lies somewhere between being entirely fragmented and completely unified. Esfandiari challenged the notion that technical cohesion alone can prevent fragmentation, emphasizing that the internet’s entirety transcends the aggregate of its components. She highlighted how minor degrees of fragmentation, emerging from various layers and contributors, might cumulatively precipitate broader fragmentation. This perspective was reinforced by Drake, who noted that an array of techniques and behaviors, when extensively applied across numerous jurisdictions, can introduce divisions, thus contributing to what might be recognized as fragmentation.

Mueller and Esfandiari brought to the forefront the geopolitical dimensions of internet fragmentation. Esfandiari identified geopolitical dynamics as the most significant driver of fragmentation, particularly pointing to actions by states like Russia experimenting with an alternative internet infrastructure. She also touched on the impact of technological innovations and corporate actions on internet unity but maintained that these are more easily navigable compared to the deep-rooted challenges posed by geopolitical factors. She emphasized the escalating geopolitical tensions that threaten to carve the internet into distinct blocs, highlighting the delicate balance between forces pushing for fragmentation and those striving for unity. Mueller’s perspective further sharpened the focus on geopolitical influences, arguing that the essence of fragmentation lies in the efforts of states to impose control over the digital realm. He contended that the push for digital sovereignty, marked by national policies regulating internet access and content, constitutes a form of fragmentation that could undermine the global internet architecture.

The panelists proposed various strategies to counteract the forces driving internet fragmentation. Datysgeld advocated for strengthening the DNS as a critical unifying element of the internet, suggesting that enhancing its security and reliability could mitigate risks of fragmentation. Esfandiari called for intensive diplomatic efforts to bridge geopolitical divides, emphasizing the need for a compelling narrative that demonstrates the mutual benefits of a unified internet for all countries, including those with authoritarian regimes. She further highlighted the importance of protecting and promoting the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. Mueller followed that line of discussion and argued that by insulating internet governance from state intervention and enhancing the roles of the private sector and civil society, there is potential to preserve the internet’s global nature and resist the pressures leading to fragmentation.

The dialogue transitioned into an engaging Q&A session providing a broader canvas to understand the implications of fragmentation and the collective efforts required to maintain the internet’s global integrity. One audience member highlighted concerns about alternative naming systems and standards proliferation as potential sources of fragmentation. Datysgeld addressed the challenges posed by emerging web three domains and alternative internet architectures, emphasizing the significant barriers to their widespread adoption due to the entrenched nature of existing protocols like TCP/IP and DNS. He pointed out the resilience of these foundational technologies, suggesting that while new entrants might introduce diversity, they are unlikely to cause significant fragmentation without overcoming the immense network externalities favoring the status quo. Esfandiari echoed this sentiment, noting the geopolitical undercurrents within debates over ITU versus ICANN-led governance models. She expressed skepticism towards a drastic departure from established standards, attributing enduring stability to the deeply rooted network effects and the inherent advantages of the current internet infrastructure. Mueller, conversely, expressed concern over standards ossification, warning against the complacency that could arise from the internet’s success in establishing ubiquitous protocols. He advocated for a dynamic approach to Internet governance that welcomes innovation and adapts to emerging technologies, ensuring that the Internet remains a fertile ground for development and diversity.

Responding to concerns about commercial practices contributing to fragmentation, such as walled gardens and zero-rating, the panelists offered varying perspectives. Mueller downplayed the impact of commercial strategies on fragmentation, arguing that market dynamics and consumer choice naturally regulate such practices. He emphasized the importance of focusing on state-driven fragmentation, which he sees as a more significant threat to the internet’s cohesive fabric. However, Esfandiari highlighted the nuanced impact of commercial practices, especially in the context of developing countries where access programs like Facebook’s Free Basics have stirred debate. She questioned whether such initiatives, while expanding access, might limit users’ internet experience to curated content and services, thus contributing to a form of “soft” fragmentation.

An audience member’s question about the potential for cyber warfare and its implications for internet fragmentation brought geopolitical considerations to the forefront. Esfandiari recounted the resilience of the internet’s infrastructure during the Ukraine conflict, underscoring the robustness of global connectivity even in the face of geopolitical strife. She argued for the importance of maintaining open channels of communication and collaboration across borders to mitigate the risks of fragmentation arising from state actions. Mueller expanded on the cybersecurity dimension, highlighting the dangers of militarizing cyberspace and the pivotal role of global cooperation in preventing the descent into a fragmented, conflict-ridden digital landscape. He called for safeguarding the internet from becoming a battleground for state conflicts, emphasizing the value of a unified, secure, and open internet for fostering international stability and prosperity.

The panel discussion, enriched by a dynamic Q&A session, illuminated the varied experiences and aspirations tied to internet fragmentation, underscoring the imperative for a multi-stakeholder, collaborative effort toward resolution. It stressed the importance of fostering dialogue and forging consensus around core principles that steer the internet’s evolution. Through such collective action, the global community can safeguard the internet as a domain of freedom, innovation, and connectivity, surmounting the divisions that risk its fragmentation. This endeavor gains additional significance in light of the forthcoming WSIS+20 and related preparatory activities, which present an opportunity to reimagine the future of the Internet. Mobilizing to maintain the internet’s universality, openness, and adherence to a multi-stakeholder model is crucial for its enduring success.

By Pari Esfandiari, President at Global TechnoPolitics Forum

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Video Link to Session Glenn McKnight  –  Mar 29, 2024 2:17 PM

Thank you Pari for an excellent summary of the session
Here is a link to the recordings
Glenn McKnight,  NASIG Coordinator Team Member

Link to the session Pari Esfandiari  –  Mar 30, 2024 2:25 AM

Thank you Glenn, Here is a link to the actual session. https://archive.org/details/nasigevents2024/12_Can_we_survive_digital_fragmentation.mp4

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