(Chris Devlin) #1

FOCUS


TECH


46


FORTUNE.COM // JUNE.1.19


throughout Southeast Asia.
This phenomenon, colloquially called
“splinternet,” whereby governments seek to
fence off the World Wide Web into a series
of national Internets, isn’t new. The term,
also known as cyberbalkanization, has been
around since the 1990s. But lately the ruptur-
ing has accelerated, as companies censor
their sites to comply with national rules and
governments blot out some sites entirely.
“It feels like a chunk of the Internet is gone
or different. People feel the Internet is not as
we knew it,” says Venkat Balasubramani, who
runs a cyber law firm in Seattle.
Technology is one reason for the change.
According to Danny O’Brien of the digital
civil rights group Electronic Frontier Foun-
dation, the sort of censorship tools deployed
by China were enormously expensive and
labor- intensive. But now, as the tools become
cheaper and more efficient, other countries are
willing to try them too. Meanwhile, there is a
new political will among governments to try to
control websites—especially following events
like the Arab Spring, during which Facebook
and Twitter helped fuel political uprisings.
It’s not just authoritarian countries trying
to bend the global web to national values. The
same social media companies that gave rise
to unrest in the Middle East have come under
fire in the West for allowing their services to
be used to promote hatred and terrorism. In
response, England and Australia have recently
passed laws demanding tech firms provide
easier access to web users’ communications.
When it comes to censorship, the process
is more complicated in democratic countries
than in dictatorships. In places like Iran and
Venezuela, autocrats can order the Inter-
net service provider—there’s typically only
one—to block sites that displease them or tell
a phone company to shut down an app. De-
mocracies require the force of law, upheld by a
judge, before governments can tamper with
a website. Nonetheless, more countries are
doing just that—often with worldwide effects.
“Fragmentation is becoming a problem.
Countries are not abiding by traditional
rules for international law and are willing to
legislate beyond their borders—the effect on
other jurisdictions be damned,” says Allen
Mendelsohn, an attorney who teaches Inter-
net law at McGill University in Montreal. He

points to the European Union
data privacy law known as the
GDPR and to so-called right
to be forgotten laws in France
and Germany that creep beyond
national borders.
The splintering of the In-
ternet is likely to accelerate as
many countries tighten their
grip on power and as nations
like Sri Lanka and New Zea-
land—whose Prime Minister
pledged to take action against
social media after a shooter
there broadcast a mass killing—
struggle to contain extremism.
For U.S. tech companies,
the fracturing of the web has
become both a geopolitical land
mine and a source of regulatory
frustration. According to the
general counsel of an Inter-
net infrastructure company,
who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because he wasn’t
authorized to do so for attribu-
tion, many in Silicon Valley see
protectionism as driving some
local rules, especially in Europe.
“There’s a bit of ‘If we can’t
beat them, regulate them.’ I
don’t know if this was brought
about by Trump, but people
have turned on the open Inter-
net,” he says.
For Ed Black, who heads the
Computer and Communica-
tions Industry Association in
Washington, D.C., the current state of the
web is troubling—and one policymakers
might have mitigated had they acted sooner.
He believes the U.S. should have done more
to promote a “digital bill of rights” and other
measures to preserve free speech online. Black
also worries that each step by governments to
restrict the web will normalize censorship and
move the world further away from unfettered
cyberspace.
Says Black: “It’s death by a thousand cuts.
We now face a situation where we have Chi-
nese and authoritarian models being aggres-
sively proselytized around the world, and we
haven’t done enough to counter that.”

ONLINE


CENSORSHIP:


A GLOBAL GUIDE


More governments
are subjecting the
Internet to national
laws. Here are some
examples:

RUSSIA
The Kremlin signed a
law in May to create a
“sovereign Internet,”
which will require
ISPs to force all web
traffic through spe-
cial nodes controlled
by the national
censor.

FRANCE
After requiring
Google to remove
thousands of search
results under a “right
to be forgotten” law,
France is leading an
EU copyright push
that many fear will
prompt websites
to ban users from
uploading files.

SRI LANK A
After a terrorist
attack, officials
ordered ISPs to
block social media
sites. Shortly after
restoring them in
May, they ordered a
new blackout to curb
ethnic tensions.