TikTok ban, intentional Internet blocking in certain countries, antitrust investigations are all part of the trend for network separation!

The idea that the Internet is a global and free space is hopelessly out of date. The founding fathers of the world network can call for the return of the ideals of libertarianism. Still, the reality is harsh: the Internet is divided every year into territorial and national grounds.

China has shown that it is possible to create its own Internet and not depend on anyone

While in other countries, the Internet developed erratically and largely at the expense of private companies, in China, from the very beginning, everything was under the control of the authorities. This allowed us to build a unique autonomous network system – with its powerful services and full digital sovereignty. Instead of Google – Baidu, instead of YouTube – Youku, instead of all popular messengers – WeChat. Here is a full list of replacements for popular services from China’s 2020 Internet report.

 China has analogs to all the services used to use in other countries of the world.

Chinese platforms have grown in the face of only domestic competition – thanks to the policy of protectionism. For two decades, the country has created a parallel structure of the Internet, directly or through large companies controlled by the state. For the system to be autonomous, the Chinese authorities have built a separate backbone communication network that connects with the rest of the world through legislatively established traffic exchange points.

Regulating the Internet and creating autonomous systems is a global trend

If 10 years ago internet control was considered a sign of authoritarian regimes, now many countries look at China with envy and hurry to achieve their own digital sovereignty. For example, there are requirements for the localization of user data in at least 45 countries. Among them are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, South Korea – states that no one considers authoritarian and rigid.

But some countries are not limited to data localization requirements. A striking example is the Russian sovereign Internet. We are discussing creating a duplicate system that can work even if it is completely disconnected from the global network. The necessary infrastructure provisions came into force in November 2019. But the struggle for Russia’s digital sovereignty began much earlier – from September 1, 2015, all personal data of Russian citizens should be stored in the country.

The European Union has a General Regulation on the Protection of Personal Data (GDPR) since May 25, 2018. It does not explicitly require data storage within the EU, but the provisions are formulated so that companies from other countries have no other option. Moreover, when GDPR came into force, some foreign services decided that it was easier to temporarily suspend access for users from Europe – at least until it became clear how to operate under the new rules.

The European Union has also been actively involved in digital protectionism – or rather, in opposition to global monopolies of American corporations. Apple and Google almost annually receive millions of fines from the European Commission. The latest solution is to introduce a regulation that protects app developers from abuse by the App Store and Google Play. This also fits into the policy of dividing the Internet into segments, each of which has special rules. International corporations will be forced to follow them if they want to operate in these markets.

But in recent months, India and the United States have done the most to divide the Internet into segments.

  • At the end of June 2020, Indian authorities blocked TikTok, WeChat and more than 50 Chinese applications in the country. The reason for this decision is a threat to national security and public order, and possible damage to India’s sovereignty and integrity.
  • On August 7, 2020, Donald Trump signed an executive order that prohibits U.S. companies from doing business with Chinese corporations ByteDance and Tencent Holdings. They own popular services TikTok and WeChat. The decree comes into force 45 days after the signing. The reason for this decision is the threat to national security associated with the disclosure of personal data of users from the United States.

Ethicality and the need for national regulation can be argued for a long time. But it doesn’t matter anymore. The separation of the Internet is a new trend that is unstoppable. It has many names, but the most common concept is the Balkanization of the Internet, similar to the political term meaning the disintegration of the state or federation, followed by conflicts between newly formed actors.

TikTok unexpectedly became one of the main actors in online conflicts between countries.
Photo: The Verge

The separation of the Internet and the simultaneous creation of national systems have another dangerous side – increased control by the state. The last case is problems with access to the network in Belarus. Such locks in difficult situations are common practice. According to the KeepItOn report, in 2019, there were 213 cases of targeted Internet blocking in a particular country. The leader in this indicator is India, which also successfully creates an autonomous system.

There’s no turning back. Countries need to think about how to build relationships in the face of non-globalization

It is unlikely that the process of separating the Internet will be stopped. Most likely, national legislation will only become stricter about the Internet. The result of this will be the same Balkanization – the world network will fall into several segments: American, European, Russian, Chinese, Indian, and others.

If the breakup happens, the development of the Internet will stop. Companies will find it difficult to navigate between borders, and local IT markets will not be ready to cover all users’ needs quickly. International trade will be disrupted (or even destroyed), and cross-border investments will disappear. It is also possible to introduce new mismatched standards. What is the division and prohibitions, already felt the owners of smartphones Huawei, which have become victims of a trade war between China and the United States? But this is a petty malaise compared to the fever that can cover the world with a destroyed global Internet.

To avoid the catastrophic consequences of separation, a common set of principles must be defined, and multilateral agreements must be formed. This problem is solved offline by the conclusion of international treaties. People live in countries with different legal systems, different laws, but this does not prevent them from traveling and doing international business because agreements regulate everything. The same thing should happen to the Internet.

Another solution is to create a new decentralized system. User data will be distributed over the network, which will remove the problem of control by corporations and states. To do this, offer to use blockchain. But now, decentralization looks as utopian as the original idea that the Internet is a global and free space.

It seems that countries will have to agree. Otherwise, everything could end in conflict and cyber warfare – the first signs of this negative scenario we see now.