In 2014, I had the privilege of going to the TED conference in Vancouver, BC. I had attended earlier TEDs when they first started in Monterey, CA, but it had been years since I attended a more modern version of this important event.
At the 2014 TED conference, there was a side event that many of us in the tech industry were invited to attend one evening after the main conference for everyone.
In 2014, the Internet had its 25th birthday, and the father of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, was a speaker at the TED conference. Show organizers, along with some other industry folks who had a historical link to the birth of the Internet, joined this party where champagne was popped, and Tim Berners Lee addressed this group directly.
He shared his work that birthed the Internet and emphasized something that to date has been the big reason that the Internet has exploded over these last 31 years. The goal was to make it possible for people to link to, and share scientific research and content. It was to be an open network with no geographical boundaries.
With Mark Andreesen’s Netscape browser, the Internet was opened beyond the scientific and governmental communities and made it possible for everyone to access the Internet at will.
At the 2014 TED event, I spoke with Tim Berners-Lee a few times as I was interested in his focus that the Internet needed to be a worldwide medium. He was adamant that the Internet needed to be an open communication network for it to be useful and meaningful.
However, over the last few years, countries like Russia and China have begun putting restraints on the Internet within their borders, trying to create what, in essence, is a siloed Internet with significant restrictions on what can and cannot be accessed from the outside.
While the US has not had any restrictions on what can and cannot be accessed globally, President Trump’s crackdown on TikTok suggests that the US government is beginning to see the Internet and its potential threats, more as China does. In China, they are creating a network that is controlled within its borders.
China has long used a firewall to block outside content and some web companies like Google. For many years when I was in China, I could get around some of their censorship by using a VPN. In my last trip in November 2019, even using a VPN did not work on sites like Google, Yahoo, and a few others.
China is also cracking down on outside ownership of local companies and is marching down a path that only companies within China, with government approval, could even operate. Other countries, especially ones with autocratic rulers, are going down similar paths.
Russia is looking at temporarily disconnecting from the worldwide Internet in the name of cvybersecurity and looking at creating their own nationalistic Internet in case adversaries cut off Russia’s access to the worldwide networks. However, it appears the real goal has more to do with censorship than any specific outside threat.
Some African nations, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, are leaning to censure content that can be accessed inside their countries.
And this week, Belarus cut off parts of the Internet to its citizens amid protests of its election. This tactic is often employed by repressive governments like Iran, Russia, Ethiopia, and Myanmar.
We are watching a splintering of the Internet along geographical and political lines. China’s government-controlled network is moving towards a fully nationalistic approach to the Internet.
And the US, forcing TikTok and What’s App to be US-based companies, could be pushing the US into a nationalistic approach to the Internet, something that violates the spirit and actual worldwide function of the Internet as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and many others.
I am very troubled by what is becoming a suggestive policy in the US that seems to want to model Russia and India. In these countries’ cases, the government makes harmful rules about what technology its citizens are allowed to use. These rules make it hard for people to understand if the roots of these rules are based on legitimate national security or forced nationalism.
If we are truthful about the goals of a “splintered” Internet, I would suggest that in much of the world where this is going on now or being proposed around a nationalistic focus, it has much to do with Internet censorship. Even in the US, there is a faint hint of censorship when political extremes want one side or the other banned or silenced for, in some cases, nefarious reasons.
No doubt, there are serious cybersecurity issues in all countries, but creating more powerful AI-based security on any nation’s Internet networks should be the driving force for their Internet protection, not nationalism or authoritarian censorship.
I sense that a splintered Internet will pick up speed in the next few years and may not be able to be reversed in many parts of the world.
A splintered Internet would be bad for cross-nation communications and applications and lead to a more closed Internet than the open one we have enjoyed for the last 31 years.