The internet duplicity of the Western world was on display at the United Nations (UN) 2022 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Discussions about the fragmentation of the Internet and the impending “splinternet” are not new. They typically focus on authoritarian states that are increasing digital borders to cut off their citizens from the “open, free and secure” global internet championed by democracies. However, this month’s IGF showed that the breakdown is more complicated. We need to think about what fragmentation looks like and examine the role that democracies play in this process.
Technology and Innovation
United States of America
For years, pundits have pointed to the tensions inherent in liberal democracies’ idealized “open, free, and secure” internet mantra. A Council on Foreign Relations task force recently called for a recalibration of US digital foreign policy on the basis that “the era of the global internet is over.” Nevertheless, the United States and other western democracies have opposed the IGF, which adheres to its mantra of openness while advocating policy approaches that lead to forms of internet fragmentation. Given this tension, western democracies and other countries interested in a free and open Internet must clarify what forms of fragmentation are acceptable.
State of play: breakdown by technical, user experience and management levels
“Averting Internet Fragmentation” was one of the five themes at the IGF. FYI, the IGF’s Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation failed to find a common definition of fragmentation through consultation and instead released a framework outlining three types of fragmentation identified by different stakeholders: technical, user experience, and governance. This breakdown serves as a useful lens through which to view current trends.
The IGF agreed that fragmentation of the technical layer of the Internet is the most important outcome for preventing changes to the Internet infrastructure that prevent it from interoperating at different endpoints. While several countries have moved to enforce their own geographic boundaries in cyberspace, IGF panelists noted that this type of fragmentation does not occur on a large scale. The public core of the Internet is largely interactive. However, concerns have been raised that cracks in the user experience or management layers could serve as a slippery slope to further technical fragmentation. Unfortunately, the debate revealed that fragmentation at these levels is well underway and at least partially driven by democracies.
Decomposing the user experience
Technology and Innovation
United States of America
Fragmentation of the user experience occurs when individuals access different online content depending on where they are in the world. This phenomenon is not unique to digital authoritarianism and is a small-scale accepted feature of liberal democracies, such as when you accept that your Netflix content will vary by location. These geographic controls will be increased by a wave of new or incoming online security regulations in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Decision makers describe these controls as policy successes. European Commission member Margrethe Vestager hails the EU as a “regulatory superpower”, while the Australian government touts a “world-leading” online security regime. The UK’s media regulator noted at the IGF that, despite new coordination initiatives such as the Global Online Safety Regulators Forum, harmonizing these different rules may be neither possible nor desirable given the different sensitivities of local contexts (1:29:20). Most of these reforms are valuable in their own right, but it is notable that governments campaigning strongly against internet fragmentation have also forced companies to use “UK Internet”, “European Internet” and so on. requires a distinction between
Fragmentation of management
At the governance level, key players are taking different approaches to protecting the open internet. On the one hand, the United Nations prioritizes consensus and tries to reconcile different views through the development of the Global Digital Compact. The United Nations’ prize for finding consensus among member states may attract criticism for tolerating the latest common denominator despite the government’s two-year internet shutdown in the Tigray region. The United Nations (19:30) is also making efforts to coordinate its various initiatives on internet governance.
In contrast, the United States and the EU have clearly indicated that they will separate the internet governance debate in order to defend 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 bright line between “like-minded” states and others. Representatives of the Global South and non-governmental organizations criticized the declaration’s exclusionary language, non-consultative drafting process and lack of involvement of civil society or the private sector. The Declaration’s exclusionary language may be a feature, not an error: the representative of the US government at the IGF affirmed that the Declaration was “aimed at distinguishing” between governments (49:20). Despite the rhetoric around creating an open internet, democracies have actively contributed to fragmentation in the areas of user experience and governance.
A new story about fragmentation
Fragmentation among democracies cannot be compared to fragmentation in authoritarian states. The democratic divide over content moderation represents a credible and inevitable turn to curb digital harm at home and abroad. It is not appropriate to prevent fragmentation among democracies at all costs if this is unacceptable harm to local populations or undermines basic democratic principles in international discourse.
The issue is the gap between democracies that rely on old mantras and implement new policies. Disjointed arrangements will undermine the credibility of democracies and contribute to authoritarians’ goal of spreading technical fragmentation around the world.
Democracies must develop a best practice framework for internet fragmentation and adopt a new narrative that reflects the realities of today’s internet. The framework should include: the limited scenarios in which content and management layer fragmentation is justified, ways to minimize its effects (eg coordination with other governments), and clarify the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable fragmentation. While challenging, the framework should provide clear practical guidance to show that the right balance can be achieved.
This should be a joint initiative based on real-time lessons learned in democracies around the world (eg the recent change to the UK Online Torts Act) to contribute to the development of the UN Global Digital Compact. Introduced in 2024. Individual democracies should then use this framework to ensure stronger coordination between domestic and foreign policy development processes when it comes to internet regulation. Taken together, these efforts will help restore credibility to a democratic vision of the future of the Internet.
Zoe Hawkins was previously an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and most recently worked as a regulatory affairs manager at Amazon, previously advising the Australian government on foreign affairs and communications policy.