The Internet no longer exists. At least not in its intended open form. The “World Wide Web” is little more than a euphemism for a patchwork of competing and conflicting territories, each scrabbling for dominance or at least dominion. What was promised as the great agent of globalization is rapidly becoming an enabler of isolationism. The borderless, digital frontier international businesses and organizations aligned themselves to is fragmenting. New borders and checkpoints are emerging. Companies that operate across those borders, both virtual and geographic, are scrambling to respond, realign and reinvent. Those that don’t or can’t find the matter taken out of their hands, either undermined by authority or hobbled by technology. Internet fragmentation isn’t a future risk. It is the current reality.
The Internet has always been a “network of networks” and concern over its potential Balkanization is nothing new. In 2010, Kevin Werbach, a professor at the Wharton School noted that “just as it was not preordained that the internet would become one global network where the same rules applied to everyone, everywhere, it is not certain that it will stay that way.” We are now certain that it hasn’t and will not ‘stay that way.’
The Internet and the World Wide Web it hosts are fracturing in many ways and on many levels. The World Economic Forum, Future of the Internet Initiative identifies three types of fragmentation taking root globally: Technical, Political and Commercial.
Technical fragmentation currently prevents roughly 25% of internet users, most in emerging markets, from accessing 70% of the Web. Political fragmentation has already divided the Internet into East and West, but recent developments are further divvying up the web into strongly bordered regional federations. Commercial fragmentation is creating walled gardens that give an application or service provider complete control of their own information space and promote “lock-in” to keep their customers within its confines.
Each of the fragmentation types identified by the WEF is imposed on internet users and are largely beyond their control. A fourth form, social fragmentation, is largely self-inflicted if not self-selected. Personalization technologies are becoming ubiquitous across major online services. If a particular type of content engages a user, they will be served more of the same. But like an addict who must continually increase their dosage to feel the same effect, each subsequent piece of content served is more focused and intense. Search for a product on Amazon and your Facebook feed will be flooded with offers for that product. Watch a YouTube video of a protest and you will soon be presented with “antifa” or “militia” videos depending on your political leanings.
Initially, this dynamic just reenforces the user’s worldview, but over time it creates a parallel reality that is extremely difficult to break out of. When amplified by the walled garden effect users are separated from non-aligned segments of the web as firmly as if they were on different networks altogether. For many it becomes as if other options, be they viewpoints, products or privileges, do not exist.
These trends are accelerating. Ed Black, head of the Computer and Communications Industry Association in Washington, D.C. calls the current trends “death by a thousand cuts” and observes “we now face a situation where we have … authoritarian models being aggressively proselytized around the world, and we haven’t done enough to counter that.” This has ramifications for both businesses and the customers and users they serve. Global business may find connections with both customers and other areas of their own company cut across regional borders. In the U.S., if the threatened executive order against TikTok and WeChat goes into effect, 80 Million users will be cut from foreign families. The parent companies, ByteDance and TenCent, will be cut off from those users and the revenue they generate as well.
A strong case can be made for sanctioning WeChat and TenCent in the US. Doing so, however, will accelerate the fragmentation of the web further with retaliatory sanctions from China. This is not a uniquely Sino-American conflict. When India banned 59 Chinese owned apps, retaliation was immediate.
Organizations with international operations or markets need to plan for both temporary disruptions and permanent realignments of their distributed operations. They must also engage in the debates currently shaping network policy and regulation in whatever countries they operated in. Each type of fragmentation has its own ramifications and tactics for amelioration. Positions and strategies must be developed for each. As Forbes magazine correctly notes “people have turned on the open Internet.”