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Are We Facing the Splinternet?

One of the consequences of the war between Russia and the Ukraine is that Russia has largely stopped participating in many large worldwide web applications. Russia has blocked Facebook and Twitter. Other applications like Apple, Microsoft, TikTok, Netflix, and others have withdrawn from Russia.

The European Union is in the process of trying to block Russian-generated content such as the state-owned news outlets of RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik. There are discussions of going so far as block all Russian people and businesses from EU search engines.

Russia has responded by declaring Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, to be an extremist organization. This has also led the Russian government to withdraw its participation in organizations that set international policies such as the Internet Council of Europe. The EU countered by suspending Russia from the European Broadcasting Union.

There is a new phrase being used for what is happening with Russia – the splinternet. In a full splintenet scenario, Russia could end up being totally separate from the rest of the world as far as participating in the Internet.

There are already countries that don’t fully participate in the worldwide web. North Korea has blocked participation in much of the web. China and Iran block a lot of western content. However, these countries still participate in supporting the general structure and protocols of the Internet, and not all western applications are blocked.

The folks from the worldwide governing bodies that oversee Internet protocols are concerned that Russia, and perhaps China and Iran could decide to fully withdraw from the web and develop their own protocols for use inside the countries. If the countries that have peeled off from the rest of the web don’t maintain the same protocols, then communications with the rest of the world eventually becomes difficult or impossible.

This would have a drastic impact on the web as an international means of communication. There are huge amounts of digital commerce between these countries and the rest of the world over and above social apps. Commerce between these countries and the world depends on email, messaging apps, and collaboration platforms. People and businesses in these countries participate in digital meetings in the same manner as the rest of the world. The economic impacts of large countries effectively withdrawing from worldwide e-commerce would be immense.

This is something that we’ve seen coming for many years. For example, Google and Facebook located servers in Russia so that content generated in Russia would stay in the country and not be stored in servers and data centers outside the country.

A Russian withdrawal from the Internet would be far more drastic than Chinese censoring of web contact – it would cut communications with the outside world to zero. It’s hard to even imagine the impact this would have on Russian businesses, let alone cutting the ties between the Russian people and everybody else. This would create a digital Berlin Wall.

It doesn’t seem likely that having Russia or China withdraw from the web would have much impact on how the rest of the world uses the web. It would mean that citizens in those countries would not benefit from the newest innovations on the web. But most countries already today understand how important the web is for commerce, and for most countries, that’s a good enough reason not to tinker with something that works.

From my perspective, the whole world suffers if folks stop participating in worldwide communications. The web is the great equalizer where folks with similar interests from around the world get to know each other. But we live in a world full of politics and controversy, so it’s probably inevitable that this will spill eventually over to the Internet, like it does to many other parts of the world economy.

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