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Is the internet falling apart?

The president’s two August Executive Orders banning the mobile app TikTok and the mobile app WeChat, along with the State Department’s major foreign policy initiative for a “clean” internet within the United States are only the most recent signs that the once open, global internet is slowly being replaced by 200, nationally-controlled, separate internets. And, while these separate American, Chinese, Russian, Australian, European, British, and other “internets” may decide to have some things in common with each other, the laws of political gravity will slowly pull them further apart as interest groups in each country lobby for their own concerns within their own country. Moreover, we will probably see the emergence of a global alternate internet before long.

Some of this nationalistic dis-integration of the internet has been foreseen as the 1990s' open/global internet gradually became a principal domain of war, news, espionage, politics, propaganda, banking, commerce, entertainment, and education since around 2005. The process of creating hundreds of individual, national internets has been slow because the global Internet — the network of networks — was never designed to recognize national borders and because the United States had been a forceful opponent of a fragmented set of national internets. Both of these conditions have changed — and they are changing rapidly. 

To oversimplify, the genesis of the internet, the U.S. Defense Department’s DARPANET, was designed to allow completely different computer networks (think IBM and UNIVAC, or PC and Mac) to connect with each other by inserting between them a gateway that converts each network’s computer language into a common internet language, called internet protocols. The genius behind the concept is that not all computer networks needed to use the same computer language… they only had to convert to a common language at a gateway, which then routed everyone on every network to everyone on every other network. And — since computer networks do not inherently notice or care which city, province, state or country they’re in or the nationality of their human user — the technology was not designed to take national borders into account. This contrasts markedly with such media as broadcasting and telecommunications, which basically grew with the permission of national governments from within countries, and then governments allowed the interconnection of their national network to others under government-controlled technical and substantive arrangements.

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As background, it’s important to recognize that — by almost any measure — the global internet is controlled by businesses and non-profits subject to the jurisdiction of the United States government. Within a roughly 1,000-mile strip of land stretching from San Diego to Seattle lie most major internet businesses and network control or standards bodies (and those that aren’t there likely lie elsewhere in the United States). So — as the governments of China, Russia and Iran never tire of explaining — while Americans constitute around 310 million out of the world’s 4.3 billion internet users (around 8 percent), the U.S. government exercises influence or control over more than 70 percent of the internet’s controls and services.      

It took China millions — perhaps billions — of dollars and well over a decade to demonstrate that the inherently non-nationalistic nature of the internet could be managed through both technical and legal means, sometimes described as “The Great Firewall of China.” Without listing the wide range of methods that China has used to create an internet within China that is different from the “internet” in the U.S. or Europe, suffice it to say that unless someone in China has extraordinary technical means and is willing to risk breaking the rules, the internet in China is noticeably different (e.g. no Google, Facebook or Twitter). China’s ability to control the internet experience within its borders between roughly 2005 and 2018 taught many other countries that doing so, even if costly, is possible. This lesson was not lost on Russia, Iran, Australia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the EU and many other countries, which began developing legal (and sometimes technical) means to control internet content within their borders. This legal/technical nationalization over the past decade was significantly boosted by the realization that it was actually not very difficult for a government to substantially shut down the internet within a territory. 

This sledgehammer approach to controlling the internet within a country’s borders was made possible in part by the prevalence of smartphones — which meant that simply closing any cell phone tower to data would shut off the internet within that tower’s reach. The result has been that, all of a sudden, a country that could never afford a “Great Firewall” had the ability to simply shut down the internet within defined territories; and countries ranging from India to Zimbabwe have done so.

And, so, the original open global nature of internet services has slowly been subjected to national controls, but only at either great cost or through the use of a sledgehammer. The next major step in this process will up the stakes: As early as 2018, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted that the internet would split in two, with an American-led internet coexisting with a new China/Russia-led internet. Schmidt’s prediction should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed China’s Belt and Road initiative or its stated public goal of playing a leading global role in information and communications technology (ICT) or its annual World Internet Conferences

The first major step in the introduction of a new, China-centric internet may have taken place last year when China introduced to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union a proposal for a new type of protocol that would connect networks in a way comparable to, but different from, the way that the internet protocols have done. This was quickly dubbed China’s New IP, and it has been the subject of major controversy as the nations and companies decide how to react. Whether a new Chinese-centric internet is based on a new series of protocols or is simply based on a new set of internet domain names and numbers, it seems likely that this alternate internet will give national governments quite a bit more control over what happens within their territories than does the global, open internet. This feature will attract quite a few national governments to join in — not least Russia, Iran and perhaps Turkey and India. The combined market power of those participating countries would make it difficult for any global internet business to avoid such a new medium. The likely result being two, parallel global computer inter-networking systems … which is pretty much what Schmidt predicted. 

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At one time, the United States would have been, by both policy and example, a powerful force opposed to national controls over the internet within its territory. “The Free Flow of Information” on the internet has been a cornerstone of U.S. international internet policy for decades, which critics would allege was easy for the Americans since nearly all information on the internet was flowing from the United States into other countries. However, 2020 has seen a dramatic shift in U.S. international internet policies (just as the past few years have seen the beginning of a shift in the market power of American internet companies). Through the U.S. “clean network” initiative, the U.S. government seeks “To prevent U.S. citizens’ most sensitive personal information and our businesses’ most valuable intellectual property… from being stored and processed on cloud-based systems accessible to our foreign adversaries.” In the TikTok and WeChat executive orders, the U.S. government proposed to prohibit “…any transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States…” with TikTok or WeChat. 

The important new approach underlying these initiatives is the firm assertion by the U.S. Government of its control over content on the internet within U.S. territory. This is fundamentally different than prohibiting content on the internet because it violates established international or domestic law, such as child predation or copyright infringement. It rests on the assertion that national governments, like the U.S., have every right to select content on the global internet and declare specific content illegal within its borders. For many countries, however, it is difficult to distinguish between China’s 2014 “clean up” campaign and America’s 2020 “clean network” campaign, since they both flatly reject the old notion of “free flow of information” and rely instead on national control of content within a country’s borders.

If we are now heading towards a world made up of nationally-controlled internets with two global inter-networking groups, one American-led and the other Chinese-led, it’s likely that most global businesses and most governments will seek to participate in both — and many end users may wind up doing so as well.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.