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‘Internet Fragmentation’: A Defining Challenge for Digital Technology Governance?

This article includes contributions from Sheetal Kumar and Lea Kaspar.

At the recent Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) 80 Policy Forum meeting, one notable takeaway was its close focus on questions around the stability and security of the technical layer of the Internet: the growing risks which assail it, and potential ways to address these through governance.

ICANN is not alone in this preoccupation. Over the last few years, it has been increasingly discussed in a range of digital governance forums, several of which—including the Global Digital Compact and WSIS+20—are set to culminate this year and next. There is a growing sense among stakeholders that the fundamentally open, interoperable model of the Internet—which has powered and enabled its astonishing success and growth—is at risk of erosion by a range of factors. These factors are often collectively given expression under the emerging rubric of ‘Internet fragmentation’: a somewhat nebulous and contested term.

With this in mind, we wanted to offer the community some explanatory notes and directions relating to the concept and its pressing salience for human rights, in the hopes of galvanising collective action in upcoming UN processes like the Summit for the Future and WSIS+20.

What is Internet fragmentation?

There is no one definition of Internet fragmentation; or, indeed, agreement on whether, where and to what extent it is taking place. However, different definitions can be placed on a spectrum, ranging from narrower to broader conceptualisations.

At the narrow end of the spectrum, the focus is on ensuring that the Internet’s infrastructure and networks remain intact and interoperable, as well as the continued functioning of protocols and standards that allow for data to flow across networks.

A broader understanding of Internet fragmentation considers how the increase in certain actions that limit user access—such as Internet shutdowns and regulation that interrupts data flows, such as data localisation laws—are, or can be, fragmentary. The concern is that such actions and measures by governments and other actors (like companies) could, collectively and over time, impact the Internet’s technical layer in a way that impairs its openness, interoperability and global nature.

In summary, this broader understanding of Internet fragmentation (captured by the IGF’s Policy Network on Internet fragmentation extends beyond technical fragmentation and seeks to include the fragmentation of the user experience, as well as fragmentation of Internet governance.

Employing this broader conceptualisation, while taking into account links between different aspects of fragmentation, is—in our view—necessary to ensure a comprehensive and timely response and to support focused and effective action.

Why should I care about Internet fragmentation?

A fragmented Internet would have grave potential impacts on all Internet users and stakeholder groups. To take one example, the ‘balkanisation’ of networks it portends could introduce significant operational and financial challenges for companies, which would likely have to contend with new points of friction when trading.

As a civil society organisation, GPD’s concerns and focus center on the impacts of fragmentation on human rights. The open, interoperable and global Internet is a key enabler of our collective human rights in the digital age primarily because it is a prerequisite for accessing, creating and sharing information. If the Internet’s technical layer is no longer open or interoperable, then this will fundamentally impact individuals’ right to seek, receive and impart information. Being unable to access accurate information can further impact individuals’ rights to health, to free and fair elections ; and being unable to express oneself and be heard online can impact individuals’ rights to freedom of association and to peaceful assembly. Some drivers of Internet fragmentation are also linked to attempts to control access to information within territorial borders and extend state control and visibility of Internet access: such as network shutdowns, DNS-based blocking (among other censorship tools), firewalls, and walled gardens. This also impacts the right to privacy.

Privacy-violating measures whose increased/normalised use could lead to Internet fragmentation include the use of deep-packet inspection firewalls, and insistences that companies store consumer data or information on local servers (data localisation).

While individually these examples do not pose a direct threat to the technical architecture of the Internet and its governance model, collectively and over time they can undermine the Internet’s openness, interoperability and global nature. Furthermore, these actions could accelerate Internet fragmentation by normalising the control of access of information within borders and by impairing the rollout of protocols and standards that support interconnectivity and interoperability. In this way, countering Internet fragmentation and ensuring the free exercise of human rights are mutually reinforcing efforts: through one, the other is also strengthened.

A comprehensive, rights-respecting approach to countering Internet fragmentation—which seeks to anchor both technical standards and regulatory frameworks and policy in human rights—is therefore needed.

What can stakeholders do to counter Internet fragmentation?

In the coming years, there is a high likelihood of increased standardisation of digital technologies as well as increased regulation. There is also an increased likelihood of corporate centralisation and consolidation, and attempts at addressing this through regulation which could have unintended negative effects on an open Internet. For this reason, stakeholders must be meaningfully engaged in standards-developing processes and regulatory efforts with the view to identifying threats to an open Internet—and should realise these threats might be inadvertent. As part of this, it is critical to avoid the risk of duplication in standards development and to support interoperable technical standards. To address these challenges and counter fragmentation while centering human rights, cooperation across stakeholder groups will be essential. A useful starting point could be agreeing on the following set of joint objectives:

  1. Commit to preserving and strengthening the multistakeholder model, with a focus on ensuring policymaking and standard-setting processes are open, inclusive, consensus-driven and transparent.
  2. Promote efforts to expand meaningful connectivity to the Internet: Access must be coupled with meaningful use of the Internet, which is enabled by digital literacy, trust, and safe, secure online environments.
  3. Protect and promote the global free flow of information, ensuring that the economic and social benefits of the Internet and related digital technologies continue to flourish and support the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  4. Ensure policy and regulation promote user control and interoperable data flows: this means protecting the Internet’s key characteristics and fundamental properties while avoiding implementing any unnecessary barriers to the global free flow of information.
  5. Protect existing open Internet technical standards and commit to open technical standards for the Internet itself and digital technologies: technical standards should be general-purpose, scalable, interoperable, have multiple implementations and be developed in an inclusive, multistakeholder process.

There are signs that this community is waking up to this critical challenge: like the recent establishment of auDA coalition, an initiative from the technical community to support multistakeholder policy approaches within Internet governance. With the upcoming WSIS+20 and the Summit for the Future, there is a real opportunity to reassert and recommit to the multistakeholder governance model, and push for continued support for an open, interoperable and global Internet that is underpinned by human rights and multistakeholder governance.

By Michaela Nakayama Shapiro, Officer, Engagement & Advocacy

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Have you seen my paper on this topic (from year 2016)? Karl Auerbach  –  Jun 25, 2024 12:35 PM

Have you seen my paper on this topic (from year 2016)?  (It was written up in CircleId.)

Internet: Quo Vadis (Where are you going?)


The thesis of the paper is that the network began as a single network, then a network of networks (today’s Internet), and that now we are turning the crank again with the net becoming a network of internets.  Or, as I expressed it, a world of network islands connected by well guarded (and taxed) bridges that allow only approved types of traffic.

This is a return to the kind of world we had in 14th century Europe - a world of walled cities (with gates where incoming and outgoing traffic could be monitored and regulated).

This change is the end to our packet-level end-to-end principle.  And it is made possible because users now do not care about packet moving elegance but rather, perceive the net as a web of applications and a concern only that those favored applications work across boundaries without much concern about the elegance (or lack of elegance) of the underlying plumbing - thus opening the doors to bridges in the forms of proxies and application level gateways (which are definitely different than address translators.)

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