Written by Philip Boucher.
Recent events have increased concerns about a potential fragmentation of the internet into a multitude of disconnected ‘splinternets’. A new Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) study examines this phenomenon and sets out four broad scenarios of policy approaches for the European Union (EU) to respond to the issue.
The noun ‘internet’ is most often used in the singular rather than plural form. However, access restrictions and automated customisation for individuals and groups have resulted in substantial divergences in the specific internet content and services that are available to users. Already a decade ago, the Economist referred to these divergences as the ‘balkanisation’ or ‘splintering’ of the internet along geographical and commercial fault-lines. This process can lead to the emergence of a landscape of distinct and autonomous ‘internets’.
This new STOA study explores the phenomenon in the context of EU digital policy. It draws from several interviews and an online workshop conducted by the authors with a range of key experts and stakeholders including institutional representatives, academics, technical experts (from civil society and the private sector), and associations supporting online civil liberties.
The study highlights that that, while the internet can provide the experience of a seamless, open, united and interconnected online public sphere, it is in fact a collection of fragmented networks. It identified several technological, political and commercial factors that can disrupt the experience of seamlessness, with users ‘enclosed’ into technological walled gardens and the emergence of splinternets that can no longer interact with other networks.
Turning to the EU legislative agenda, the authors suggest that it can be seen simultaneously as a driver for positive opportunities and catalyser for the worsening of the very same threats. The EU has repeatedly committed to promote the development of a single, open, neutral, free, secure and un-fragmented network, while adopting a more strategic approach to the process of making internet standards and protocols. As a result, some elements of the EU approach may negatively affect connectivity, for example in the name of digital sovereignty; while others are supportive of an open and universal internet, such as those promoting digital markets, network neutrality, interoperability and data portability. The authors suggest that these apparent inconsistencies may be explained in part by the issue of internet fragmentation being in the early stages of political problematisation.
The study concludes with the identification and assessment of four broad scenarios for EU policy approaches:
- Maintaining the status quo. This scenario is based on the assumption that the internet and the digital market are structured in a way that prevents fragmentation. Internet governance would remain essentially a multi-stakeholder process, and the EU would rarely intervene directly in matters related to standards.
- Embracing fragmentation. This scenario may be based on the premise that fragmentation is in the nature of the internet itself, that fragmentation can be beneficial to digital sovereignty, or that commercial walled gardens can allow companies to create well-integrated, efficient and user-friendly equipment and services.
- Consistently fighting fragmentation. Under this scenario, fragmentation is considered as something to be avoided as such. The EU would have to revise many of its current policies to avoid any fragmenting effects, while ensuring it breaks certain monopolies that allow corporations to create their own walled gardens, and developing instruments to support connectivity in countries that limit internet access.
- Towards fragmentation that is ‘necessary in a democratic society’. This fourth approach is based on human rights law, and considers internet unity to be derived from certain fundamental rights, such as the freedom to access information, and asserts that any limitation to that right should be, in the words of the European Court of Human Rights, ‘necessary in a democratic society.’
These scenarios, and several associated options, are set out in the accompanying STOA options brief, and examined in greater detail in the study.
The study was presented by its authors to the STOA Panel at its meeting of 9 June 2022. A video of the presentation can be streamed via the Parliament’s Multimedia Centre.
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