The Western Worlds Internet Doublespeak was showcased at the United Nations (UN) Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2022 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Discussions about Internet fragmentation and the looming splinternet are not new. They usually focus on authoritarian states that erect digital borders to separate their citizens from the open, free and secure global internet advocated by democratic countries. However, this month’s IGF demonstrated that fragmentation is more complex. We need to reflect on what fragmentation looks like and examine the role democracies are playing in this process.
For years, pundits have emphasized the tensions inherent in liberal democracies’ idealized mantra of an open, free, and secure Internet. More recently, a Council on Foreign Relations task force has called for a recalibration of US digital foreign policy on the grounds that the global internet age is over. However, the United States and other Western democracies came to the IGF committed to the mantra of openness, all while advocating policy approaches that lead to forms of Internet fragmentation. Given this tension, Western democracies and others interested in a free and open Internet need to clarify which forms of fragmentation are acceptable.
State of Play: Fragmentation across technical layers, user experience, and governance
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Avoiding Internet fragmentation was one of the five themes of the IGF. Significantly, the IGF Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation was unable to find a shared definition of fragmentation through consultation and instead released a framework defining three types of fragmentation identified by different stakeholders: technical, experience of the user and governance. This breakdown serves as a useful lens through which to consider current trends.
It was agreed at the IGF that fragmentation of the technical layer of the Internet, changes to the infrastructure of the Internet that prevent it from functioning interoperably between different end points, is the most important outcome to be avoided. While several countries have moved to enforce their geographic borders on cyberspace, IGF speakers noted that this type of fragmentation is not happening on a large scale. The public core of the Internet remains largely interoperable. However, concerns have been raised that cracks in user experience or governance layers could act as a slippery slope for further technical fragmentation. Unfortunately, the discussions made it clear that fragmentation at these levels is well underway and driven, at least in part, by democracies.
User experience fragmentation
User experience fragmentation occurs when people have access to different online content depending on where they are in the world. This phenomenon is not unique to digital authoritarianism and is already an accepted feature in small-scale liberal democracies, such as when you accept that your Netflix content will vary by location. These geographic controls are set to increase thanks to a wave of new or upcoming online safety regulations in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada.
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Decision makers are framing these checks as political successes. European Commission Margrethe Vestager celebrates the EU as a regulatory superpower, while the Australian government promotes a world-leading online safety regime. The UK’s media regulator told the IGF that despite new coordination initiatives such as the Global Online Safety Regulators Forum, harmonizing these different regulations may not be possible or desirable given the differing sensitivities of local contexts (1:29:20). Most of these reforms have individual value, but it is noteworthy that governments taking the final stand against internet fragmentation are simultaneously requiring companies to distinguish between the UK internet, the European internet and so on.
At the governance level, major players are taking diverging approaches to preserving an open internet. On the one hand, the United Nations prioritizes consensus and works to reconcile different viewpoints through the development of a Global Digital Compact. The prize the United Nations gives to consensus-seeking among member states may draw criticism for tolerating the lowest common denominator, most recently regarding its controversial selection of Ethiopia as IGF host country despite a two-year closure of the Internet by the government in the Tigray region. Furthermore, the proliferation of initiatives related to Internet governance by the United Nations risks (19:30) to spread the efforts too thinly and create confusion.
Conversely, the US and the EU have shown that they will explicitly divide internet governance debates to uphold democratic principles. The Declaration on the Future of the Internet, released in April 2022 and now signed by sixty governments, including the US and many EU member states, was a controversial topic at the IGF. The Declaration draws a sharp line between like-minded states and others. Representatives from the Global South and non-governmental organizations criticized the exclusionary language of the statements, the non-consultative drafting process and the lack of involvement of civil society or the private sector. The Statements exclusionary language may be a feature, not a bug: At the IGF, a US government representative confirmed that the Statement purports to differentiate between governments (49:20). Despite the rhetoric about creating an open internet, democracies have actively contributed to the fracture in the areas of user experience and governance.
A new narrative on fragmentation
The fragmentation between democracies is not comparable to the fragmentation led by authoritarian states. The democratic fragmentation on content moderation reflects a valid and inevitable pivot to avoid digital harm at home and abroad. It makes no sense to avoid fragmentation between democratic states at all costs if that cost is unacceptable harm to national populations or the dilution of basic democratic principles in international discussions.
The problem lies in the gap between democracies that implement new policies relying on old mantras. Regulations that drift away will impact the credibility of democracies and contribute to the authoritarian goal of spreading technical fragmentation across the globe.
Democracies need to develop a best practice framework on internet fragmentation and adopt a new narrative that reflects today’s internet realities. The framework should address: the limited scenarios where fragmentation of content and level of governance is justified, ways to minimize its impacts (such as coordination with other governments), and clarify the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable fragmentation. The framework should provide clear practical guidance to demonstrate that while challenging, the right balance can be struck.
This is expected to be a collaborative initiative drawing on real-time lessons learned in different democracies around the world (such as the UK’s recent change to the Online Harms Act) to feed into the development of the United Nations Global Digital Compact, which will be presented in 2024. Individual democracies should therefore leverage this framework to drive stronger coordination between their domestic and foreign policy development processes when it comes to internet regulation. Taken together, these efforts will help restore credibility in the democratic vision of the future of the Internet.
Zoe Hawkins was a former analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, most recently served as Head of Regulatory Affairs for Amazon and previously advised the Australian Government on foreign affairs and communications policy.
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