Twenty years ago, there was nothing like the internet we have today, the global all-connecting network that has become an integral part of our lives. Over the last few decades, we have all witnessed how it has grown exponentially and come to change our everyday existence – keeping most of us online all the time (with accompanying frustrations as well as benefits) and making communications and information exchange unprecedentedly seamless and fast.
But I fear that we are at a turning point for the internet, and may even be going into reverse. The utopia of a borderless digital global village may be coming to an end. Fragmentation of the world wide web is already taking place – along national borders.
Edward Snowden’s revelations on the scale of US online surveillance – the Guardian’s massive scoop of 2013 – may be giving rise to a new era in history. The disclosures have already given rise to significant changes, including skyrocketing growth of the number of users striving for online privacy and choosing anonymity tools and browsers, and the astonishing swell in the value of bitcoins, the most widely used anonymous online peer-to-peer currency.
But what may prove to be the ultimate game-changer is the fragmentation of the internet. A number of countries, among them Brazil and Germany, are considering carving out their own sectors of the internet, or may even have already started the process. If the trend spreads, which is likely, such fragmentation will bring about the creation of parallel networks as governments the world over try to isolate their critically important communications. Such networks with no physical connection to the internet are already widely used for military communications.
The new networks will serve only governments and large enterprises with the aim of protecting national critical infrastructure from any possible foreign intrusion. This will mean they’ll be more secure and reliable, but they’d come at a price, quite literally. Building such networks requires both huge investment over many years (funded by taxpayers) and a great deal of technical expertise (diverted from public services and innovative projects).
This is probably good news if you’re graduating with an IT engineering degree soon. Less so if you want to work abroad, because governments will prefer homegrown talent that can pass all the necessary security checks. Also, many countries – even some high-tech giants like Germany, Japan and France – could face a deficit of such workers.
Internet fragmentation will bring about a paradoxical de-globalisation of the world, as communications within national borders among governmental bodies and large national companies become increasingly localised.
Ordinary users will hardly perceive any change while these state-run parallel networks are being built, but there is another aspect of this global trend that will affect everyone directly. Some countries are already seriously considering making sure as much of their internet traffic as possible stays within their national borders.
In some countries, for example Brazil, there’s talk about forcing global giants such as Google and Facebook to locate their data centres locally to process local communications. If this trend gains worldwide momentum, it will be a disaster for global IT giants and pose a threat of full-blown Balkanisation of the internet. The process would probably foster the creation of local search engines, email systems, social networks and so on – an intimidating prospect for publicly listed companies.
As a result, the whole notion of netizens, or global online citizens, and of the internet being a global village could lose all practical meaning. What could emerge is a patchwork of online nation states with different rules and regulations and hindered communications.
Sadly, I don’t think the trend can be reversed. It feels as inevitable as the change of the seasons. But while one can’t help complaining about bad weather in December, it’s worth remembering that a bit of snow is not the end of the world.
Internet fragmentation may mean better protection of national critical infrastructure; as a counterbalance, the politicians and diplomats of the world should be engaged in dialogue on how to keep the internet as close to how we know it today – a global information highway.
Eugene Kaspersky is chairman and CEO of Kaspersky Lab