The global internet is becoming fragmented as countries block and filter content, creating a "splinternet."
When Russia invaded Ukraine, its government blocked sites such as Facebook and Twitter within Russia. The Chinese government created the Great Firewall at the internet's beginning to filter content. North Korea and Iran have strong content censorship too. These separate regional internets limit the information available regionally to residents and visitors.
Not all information on the internet is the same, and such restrictions can lead to government control, misinformation and global separation.
What is the splinternet?
The splinternet involves the breaking off -- or splintering -- of the internet into several fragmented pieces. The division of the internet can be caused by the following:
- national interests
Each fragment is governed by different regulations, resulting in multiple parallel internets that are not connected to one another. The internet then becomes a walled-off infrastructure that separates into geopolitical areas, much like geographic regions.
What is the purpose of the splinternet?
With an open internet, users can visit any sites they want by typing in the domain name. But when the internet is fragmented, the government or other organizations control what is accessible. When users enter a web domain name such as Wikipedia.com, it might not take them to the website, or the site might show a blocked notification.
China initiated the Golden Shield Project -- also known as the Great Firewall -- to censor information based on what the government determines is "safe." When people visit China, they cannot access the global internet. Some top U.S. websites are banned in China, such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo. To accomplish this filter, technical methods include blocking IP addresses of noted domains, scanning packets of data for specific keywords and accessing credit records.
North Korea has one of the most restrictive policies of all countries. Internet access is not readily available in North Korea to its citizens, and visitors need to access it through a 3G phone network. Most websites include state-controlled propaganda that favorably portrays government leaders. Only select top-ranked officials have access to the global internet.
Iran also has strong censorship of internet content. The government blocks millions of sites it deems "immoral," including some of the following:
- social media sites such as YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter;
- streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix;
- messaging apps such as Telegram and Facebook Messenger;
- shopping and e-commerce sites such as JD and Taobao;
- blog hosting sites such as WordPress and Tumblr;
- sports news such as NFL and CBS Sports; and
- foreign media outlets such as CNN, CBS News and Fox News.
Moreover, journalists and citizens can be imprisoned or harassed for publishing content not agreeable to Iran's terms. The media censorship over the Iran protests in May 2022 is an example of how information was blocked as the internet was cut off in protesting cities.
How is Russia's war on Ukraine accelerating the splinternet?
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has fragmented its internet by blocking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, Russia has spread disinformation regarding the invasion, such as praising President Vladimir Putin for his actions.
The Russian government has pushed for a sovereign internet for years. In 2019, Putin signed legislation referred to as the sovereign internet law to stop what it deems the U.S.'s aggressive cybersecurity strategy. The law led to the installation of equipment to allow Russian networks to filter, track and reroute internet use.
Russia tested its "Runet" intranet by removing itself from the global internet to determine its ability to run independently from all other sources; Russia can run cached pages without delay. By running all websites through filters and firewalls, the Russian government has complete control over what people see.
Learn more about how to spot disinformation on social media.
How does the splinternet affect the internet?
With a splinternet, people have limited access to information. Businesses might have to adapt strategies to remain viable in different regions. With complex regulations and laws, the costs of running a business in some of these areas can be too high. Businesses rely on worldwide data, which can be hard to collect with the splinternet.
A global internet allows actions to be seamless. People can communicate with those in other countries, continue interacting when traveling and shop on global websites. A splinternet creates a barrier to these items and controls what people can do.
Why is the splinternet dangerous?
Censoring content on the web can lead to misinformation. People lose the ability to access accurate and complete information, so they can be led to believe something that might not be true.
The people in countries with splinternets can become victims of geopolitics as their governments determine what should be available and what should not. Governments can lead people to follow a certain agenda. Removal of content can also cause mistrust of the government.
If world governments create their own fragmented internets, this could increase the risk of cyber attacks. If a country has its own internet, threat actors there are not worried about breaking their own internet as they carry out a cyber attack on another country.
As more countries start splintering off, internet technologies might not be compatible with the various regional networks. There would no longer be one single internet.