I n August 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, set up a server for networked computers to share information on. A network with no central hub, it was designed so information could pass from any point in the network to another through a number of ‘switching stations’, or routers. But what began as a tool for academics was rapidly adopted by businesses and ordinary people wanting to communicate. Just two decades later, the world wide web now serves over half the global population. Between 2005 and 2012, estimates found cross-border online traffic to have grown 18-fold. By 2025, cross-border flows of goods, services and investments – worth $26 trillion in 2012 – are forecast to triple.
No less dramatic, the world wide web has also given rise to social media which have transformed social interaction and communication. The social media giant, Facebook, though only founded in 2004, is now one of the world’s most valuable companies. At its best the world wide web seemed to offer the chance to bring the world’s population closer, linking ordinary people directly without any government intervention and spreading democratic values. It had darker sides too, with national security concerns raised by hacking attacks by foreign powers. Nevertheless, in a few short decades, it is beyond doubt that the world wide web has revolutionised our world, transforming it in a way that seems irreversible.
Yet, at a time when the force of the internet seems irrepressible, moves are afoot to break it up. Alarmed by its power, governments around the world are trying to re-assert control by establishing national versions that are disconnected from the world wide web. China led the way years ago, blocking international communication with its ‘Great Firewall’. Now Russia too is introducing what it calls a digital sovereignty bill, to stop the country’s internet traffic being routed through foreign servers as it seeks to isolate its internet service from the rest of the world. Governments elsewhere are doing so too: Iran, North Korea, Egypt and Cuba are just some of the other countries trying to break up the borderless web.
“We’ll talk to France about how we can maintain a high level of data protection … Above all we’ll talk about European providers that offer security for our citizens.”
But perhaps most surprising is that national intranets are being considered far more widely than just by authoritarian regimes. In 2013 for example, Brazil, India and South Africa joined Russia and China to create an independent internet, constructing a 34,000 -kilometre underwater cable, known as the ‘BRICS’ cable after their regional grouping. In 2014, the European Union announced plans with Brazil to lay an undersea fibre-optic communications cable of their own worth $185 million, enabling another bilateral internet for walled-off communication. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, even called for the European Union to form its own regional intranet tied to the political bloc.
So too, though, are there concerns from liberal democracies, the first of which, as China and Russia lead the way with more aggressive postures, is national security. The cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010 through the Stuxnet virus – an attack which even now remains mysterious – was just one illustration of what damage such attacks could do. Governments across the globe shuddered.
Meanwhile, there are other problems with the current system. Server hacks are not uncommon, and increasingly firms hide their data breach from consumers for years – as Yahoo did in 2013 – presenting further uncertainties for consumers. As the 2016 US Presidential elections demonstrated, the global internet also means ill-meaning actors can spread propaganda across borders to foreign citizens at the click of a button, thereby eroding the very foundations of liberal democracy.
Perhaps the greatest concern though over the world wide web is the unauthorised exploitation of data. Since the turn of the century, when its value first started to become appreciated, data has been at the forefront of business innovation. First Google started directing its users to frequently-visited webpages and Facebook began using consumer data to target its adverts. E-commerce sites soon then began personalising product recommendations and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft now direct cars-based customers’ locations. The move to a “splinternet” as it’s now coined would seek to curb the spread of data, thus assuaging consumers’ misgivings.
Indeed, the transition might well be a beneficial one. A world of different splinternets, each behaving differently according to geography, might appeal to regulators. In theory, it will stem supply and demand, increasing market competitiveness as the multinational digital corporations lose much of their global reach.
But for all its attractions, an internet sequestered by national borders would have its drawbacks as well. The same ‘Big Tech’ companies will inevitably struggle to comply with all the added legal permutations over access to respective intranets. ‘Echo-chambers’, where beliefs and opinions amongst like-minded people are systematically reinforced, will isolate citizens further, polarising political opinion and undermining social cohesion.
In addition, for capitalist liberal democracies, a divided world wide web would have a “crippling impact on cross-border trade”, according to Professor Narula of Henley Business School. He goes on to conclude, “Most of the products we consume today are manufactured through supply chains that span many countries. [They] run on an IT backbone which facilitates the flow of communication, collaboration, and commerce.” Firms’ variable costs of production, though small across the digital sector, will inevitably also rise. With segregated markets, competition would suffer, thereby damaging the quality of the final service for the consumer. Never mind the millions of jobs that would be endangered if firms’ markets become fully closed off.
In spite of the early progress, therefore, it’s unclear whether a digitally divided web will ever fully materialise. Should it fragment, it’s tough to ever imagine a return to today’s internet, largely unbroken by borders. Most of all, arguably the web’s greatest asset – providing a platform through which every business has a shot at success – will be fatally undermined. Ultimately, its fate rests on whether the tech giants and the digital economy as a whole can combine its benefits while also healing consumer concerns. Neglect of that condition, and the days of untrammelled freedom across the web might just be numbered.