The Landscape of the Splinternet

Introduction


This post will examine the different landscapes of the splinternet as how I roughly understand as they exist. These are my thoughts and opinions on the matter of the splinternet so please undertake further reading on this topic if it piques your interest. Why this topic is at times intricate to discuss because the current climate surrounding control and access to applications and services through the internet is slowly becoming more complicated. The landscape of the splinternet I will be talking include the Cultural and social (language), Regulatory and Nation-State. Also, I will suggest a couple of things about what could do about it its implications. 


Cultural and Social Splinternet


I have written about Language and the splinternet before so will only provide a brief reminder. With the cultural and social splinternet as the barriers across cultures with media and language being two defining features. These naturally exist in the physical world (nation-state) because of how we naturally divide ourselves up and congregate in similar and like-minded groups. Internet reflects that and in some cases to a greater harmful degree. Also, with the English language having the largest representation on the internet creates a bias that masks the impact of this language and cultural splinternet. 

Existing research has shown that online networks are often segregated along identity lines, such as political ideology or religious views. These Bubbles of online communities can be defined in a few ways. Firstly the Neutral bubbles which the vast majority of social media groups fall into. These are fairly harmless and can include things sports, local communities and hobby groups etc. Secondly, some bubbles aim to provide positive safe spaces for people who may feel isolated due to issues of identity, sexuality or mental health. These often aim to provide support, advice and community to people who may be isolated from each other by distance and cannot find support within their local area. Thirdly, there are the negative bubbles, online spaces and forums this provides a platform for extremist views, terrorists etc. People who seek to marginalise and spread hate. 


Also, as COVID-19 has shown a lack of reliable access to the internet and the services it allows creates haves and haves not in accessing information, media, news and services. This creates a digital-physical world divide which while not caused by the splinternet. Actions that are taken that are the result of the splinternet may exacerbate this digital-physical divide. 


Regulatory


The regulatory splinternet are the laws which govern how companies can act or conduct business through the internet. Often when this brought up most cited is the EU which has GDPR, ePrivacy Act and now the Cybersecurity Act. This led to some companies to stop allowing access to their sites and/or service from connection coming from the EU as sight compliance with these acts as an issue. But conversely, other companies have adapted compliance with GDPR regardless of where or who is accessing their site or services. Also, recently the UK has released new codes of practice which means apps, social media platforms and online games for children must offer privacy by default. 

In the USA there is the California Consumer Privacy Act. Which due to the number of technology companies that offer services in that State it has affected the rest of the USA. Also, it has accelerated other states plans to pass their data protection acts.


Data protection regulations are not just the preserve of western countries, for example, India is in the process of finalising the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019. Broadly it aligns with what most EU countries and UK requires when it comes to data protection, process, transfer and storage. 


Nation-State


The Nation-State splinternet has developed over the past twenty-years from an Internet that has gone from being a symbol of 'no borders' utopianism to a place where nationalist-inspired 'cyberspace sovereignty' is being robustly asserted by countries keen to cordon themselves off from the rest of the world - and the trend is unlikely to peter out any time soon. Also, measures are implemented intended to render internet and mobile network services inaccessible or effectively unusable for a specific population or location.


The biggest catalyst for this change has is on the day of 9/11. This is when everything changed in how the USA responded to the events of that day. We are living with the legacy of those actions in response to that day. We are unlikely to ever to back to how things were before then. It is worth reading up further on this issue as the events and actions by the USA, the Western world in general, Russia and China in their use of the internet affected the relationship to each other. 


Potential Solutions


There are a couple of potential solutions which might help overcome fractured landscape that is the splinternet. 


Firstly, we could tackle the language issue that is prevalent by ensuring information and services can be accessed regardless of what language they are in or the language of the user. This takes some inspiration from South Africa and Canada where they have taken steps and measures to ensure multiply languages are used. Part of this may be better auto-translate tools and their integration in applications and services that yet do not make use of them. 


Secondly, make use of Standards Development Organisations (SDOs) to create, publish and maintain global frameworks of data and privacy protection. Hopefully, without having conflicting standards from multiply SDOs or a dozen standards which partly overlap but all focus on different narrow sectors with little harmony between them. Some of the areas any standard would have to cover concerning the issue of include digital connectivity and the elements that support including telecoms infrastructure, service providers and regulations. Though this is a long term solution as there are varying approaches towards standards development around the globe this means it will take for a common framework to work on this will take time. Though we have already achieved global standards for mobile telecoms through 3GPP so it is not an impossible task though it did take a while to get there.


Conclusions


A couple of the issues I am biased towards due to my interest in cultural, history and language. So measures to lessen the impact of the splinternet I think are vital. Though for some nations that would require a fairly large change in political policy and government. There is no silver bullet to this issue. It will need and require collective action from states, companies, SDOs and individuals to prevent the complete splintering of the internet from happening. Hopefully, this post has given you something to think about and provided useful ideas and information which leads to further reading on this issue. 


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