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Bridging the Splinternet

By Stuart Calam | January 8, 2021

The politics of the ‘splinternet’ could be problematic. Increasingly, when it comes to data handling, use, and movement, "different countries are playing by different rules."
Cyber Risk Management

The internet, a free and open worldwide space of networks allowing the sharing of data and information across the globe, is no more. Today there are internets - plural - built on different systems with fractured structures that align with national interests and values; something that is unlikely to change given the rise of nationalism around the world. The Splinternet is here and how an organization works with it can have deep implications for the risks it faces.

The Splinternet is not new. The term can be traced back to the turn of the century when Clyde Wayne Crews, a researcher at the Cato Institute, outlined his vision of "parallel Internets that would be run as distinct, private, and autonomous universes”. Partly in response to concerns about the fracturing of the internet, in November 2016 like-minded souls gathered in Paris for the first international conference dedicated to finding ways for countries to co-ordinate internet policies.

In 2018, Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, made a prediction in that the internet will soon be split in two with one part being led by a unified China and the other by a collection of disparate and often competing companies led from the United States. Today, other versions of the Internet are emerging such as a more regulated European version, driven in part by regulation like GFDR, and a libertarian free-for-all of the kind envisioned by an earlier generation of digital pioneers. Russia has similarly looked at ways it can make it internet independent as a way of gamifying potential cyber warfare scenarios. In a potential age of a cyber Cold War countries are vying for technological supremacy. The World Wide Web is the new battlefield, especially when you consider the billions of new and old connected IoT devices coming online.

It is likely then the term Splinternet will not only continue to find greater currency in the coming years, but the idea that the internet, long imagined as globally accessible and beyond the rules and restrictions of individual government, will slowly be eroded. That governments will seek to fence off their internet to create national internets will become more of a reality. A maze of national or regional interests and often conflicting rules will slowly take root.

What does this mean for Technology Risk?

In an environment of rapidly increasing digital working, communicating and consuming, the fracturing of the internet is a growing concern. Just think about Brexit’s impact on the financial services sector, and the need to set up hubs in new locations.

A recent episode of the excellent CNBC’s “Beyond the Valley” podcast, suggests that data is going to play a key part in determining how much the internet becomes portioned. Data is an increasingly valuable resource, influencing purchasing decisions, behavior dynamics, health and other aspects. Companies with strong data strategies are on the rise. But with the changing internet landscape, businesses could find their access and ability to use data significantly changed. This situation presents a challenge for businesses – and especially those whose operations are purely internet based.

Innovation, the elixir behind the growth of technology, could be hit hard. Increased regulation means disruption of ways of working and operational complexity narrowing the space for free thinking and boundary pushing. For smaller companies looking to expand to new countries, new difficulties could be introduced due to the overhead costs of compliance to various regional regulations. New products looking to enter a market no longer have a single platform to be compatible with, not a single framework to run against.

The politics of the ‘splinternet’ could be problematic. Increasingly, when it comes to data handling, use, and movement, "different countries are playing by different rules.". US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently outlined intentions to remove Chinese influence, and Chinese companies, from the internet in the US, claiming Chinese apps “threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation.” And yet, perhaps ironically, the US plan borrows from China's "great firewall" playbook, where a number of US websites are blocked and provides the Chinese government with powers to regulate and censor online content within its borders.

Trust in Technology

On a final note, amongst the many significant impacts of COVID-19, the emergence of new technology has fostered new approaches that are likely to change the way we work forever. In an increasingly remote workplace, our access to data and networks can be our only link to the outside. Our ability to trust the technology we use and the information we access is of paramount importance. Because of the internets (by-design) open, non-secured framework, a fractured internet can itself become an issue. The importance of trust is truly noticed when trust becomes scarce.


Head of Technology Risks Research,
Programme Director and Climate & Resilience Hub
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