The Balkanisation of the Internet

This month it was reported that Syria had once again blocked access to the internet. Both Google and Renesys, an internet monitoring service, reported the outage. The incident comes after a similar blackout in November of last year, when activists were attempting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Last year’s blackout was blamed on ‘terrorism,’ while this most recent event on a technical fault. David Belson of Akamai Technologies has analysed the situation and told the BBC that the fault blamed couldn’t have caused a complete internet blackout. Al Jazeera has meanwhile reported that military sources within Syria have claimed the blackout was part of a security force operation.

Our ability to communicate openly finds itself continually under assault, subject to geographic restrictions.  Recently, Freedom House released their Freedom of the Press report, which found that ‘the percentage of the world’s population living in societies with a fully free press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade.’ It seems that censorship is increasing in all areas of the media and in countries all over the world. Western Europe was found to have suffered an ‘unprecedented decline’ in press freedom in 2012. The report also noted that ‘new media’ was subject to ‘heightened contestation’ in the last year. Freedom of the Net 2012 Report  illuminates these evolving threats to internet freedom, online press, and bloggers.

Each country has a very different idea about what is and what isn’t acceptable content, and thanks to increasingly fine-grained technological controls, it is increasingly within nations’ power to select the content their citizens can see.  Thus, we are increasingly experiencing the ‘balkanisation’ of the internet, with a different version of the Internet available in each country and the dream of an entirely free, accessible, and global Internet becoming just a dream. As Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith discussed in their 2006 book, Who Controls the Internet?, the world wide web is becoming a “bordered internet” — a “collection of nation-state networks“. Ryan Budish already highlighted on this blog the difference between the Internet with a big I – the one network that connects everyone – and internet with little i – little local networks.

While the difference between the tightly controlled networks of China and the Middle East and the relatively free Internet of the West is obvious, there are differences even between individual European countries, and between Europe and the US. The US generally applies its First Amendment principles to hold that speech should be free unless it is used to incite violence or is criminal in nature (such as child pornography).  In contrast, Europe tends to be far more concerned about the possible results of offensive or hateful speech, having experienced first-hand the extremes of both fascism and communism.

European law also recognises the ‘right to be forgotten,’ which allows criminals who have served their time to object to the publication of facts about their conviction. Under the First Amendment in the US, the publication of an individual’s criminal history is protected. In the Internet age, this means that there is a question of how the ‘right to be forgotten’ should apply to the world of social media. In January 2012, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, said that ‘If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system.’ For US lawmakers, the ‘right to be forgotten’ represents a significant threat to free speech.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks continue to make their own decisions about what is and what isn’t acceptable content.  For example, Facebook was severely criticised for its decision not to remove the Innocence of the Muslims video, which was initially blamed for causing riots all over the Middle East, while simultaneously censoring a political ad that criticised Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg. Jeffrey Rosen at the New Republic has suggested that ‘the Deciders’ of the big social networks are in many ways more powerful when it comes to the issue of online free speech than any government. It is important to remember, however, that the social networks are driven by profit rather than principle. If it is in their financial interests to censor content, they will do so, as Facebook proved by deeming all criticism of Ataturk, no matter where in the world it originates or is seen, as unacceptable, even though it is only illegal in Turkey.

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has warned in the Guardian that in the coming years ‘Each state will attempt to regulate the internet, and shape it in its own image.’ With the increased balkanisation of the internet, even a kind of visa requirement may become necessary, ‘controlling the flow of information in both directions.’

Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer at Renesys, has found that there is a ‘silver lining’ to all of the attacks on Internet freedom, stating that ‘every significant Internet disconnection, and the local and global reaction of outrage and dismay, sends an important signal about the fragility of the underlying system. It makes single points of failure and control visible, so that those fragilities can be found and fixed, and the Internet as a whole can continue to gain strength from disorder.’

Whether Eric Schmidt’s dark predictions or Jim Cowie’s more hopeful ones will come true remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the global Internet is under threat, and that a concerted effort must be made to protect its freedom and accessibility.

Jean-Loup Richet – Herdict Special Contributor

 

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