ith the creation of the Internet in the 1990’s, the world as we know it was forever changed—and with it, a new era of global connectedness and shared human experience was ushered in. From the onset, the open nature of the Internet proved to be the catalyst needed to bring people closer together through social media and messaging platforms, while also allowing for the dissemination of news and information to occur in a free and uninhibited way that united humanity in times of both disaster and triumph.
The Internet has been perceived up until now as one of the sole mechanisms through which so many traditional boundaries between nations, languages, cultures, and people have been erased. But the World Wide Web is a world divided. On one side there is a free and open net. On the other, isolated Internet systems are set up in nations that aim to control access and distribution of information.
China is increasingly censoring outside content through “the Great Firewall.” Other nations such as India and Russia are increasing government censorship control and playing with the idea of completely isolated state-run Internet systems. The future of a global Internet has become uncertain—and with even Western countries struggling with reforms such as Net Neutrality and increases in proprietary Internet platforms, the free and open World Wide Web we take for granted may soon shatter into irreparable fragments.
One of the most well-known nations leading the front is China, who for years has been increasing censorship of outside content in addition to removing and revising content posted by Chinese citizens. As Freedom of the Net’s worst abuser of the Internet for the fourth consecutive year in a row, new cyber security laws put into place in 2017 have increased censorship measures and created procedures that restrict the use of circumvention tools, such as VPNs, that many Chinese citizens use to bypass government filters.
But China is hardly the only one.
From the onset, the open nature of the Internet proved to be the catalyst needed to bring people closer together through social media and messaging platforms, while also allowing for the dissemination of news and information to occur in a free and uninhibited way that united humanity in times of both disaster and triumph.
India has recently put forward a proposal that would allow Indian officials to demand search engines and social media websites such as Facebook, Google, and TikTok to remove posts they deem libelous, deceptive, or invasive of privacy. Perhaps more importantly, the proposal postulates that it would be the role of the internet companies to build automated screening tools to protect Indians from seeing content deemed unlawful, a request that’s logistically near impossible to fulfill for most companies.
Similarly, a more drastic tactic that the Indian government has often employed in order to censor content in times of civil unrest is the slowdown or even complete shutdown of the Internet on a nationwide scale. In fact, Statista found that between January 2016 and May 2018, India shut down its Internet 154 times, the most out of any country in the world—and even more concerning, a report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations found that between 2012 and 2017, 16,315 hours of intentional Internet downtime cost the Indian economy a whopping $3.04 billion. Clearly, the financial cost of censorship is no small matter, which raises the question: is complete isolation from the Internet even financially possible?
Perhaps most worrisome of all is Russia, who plans to take Internet censorship one step further by completely cutting itself off from the World Wide Web. Indeed, a new law proposed in December would require the country’s Internet service providers to completely back the country’s independent Internet system Runet, as well as reroute all Internet traffic through Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator, thereby effectively creating a self-sustaining Internet bubble.
However, while a completely isolated state-run Internet may seem plausible in theory, the infrastructure that would need to be built and employed—Internet cables, satellite systems, and a number of other technologies the World Wide Web currently relies on to run—would require an astronomical amount of funding. And the likelihood that institutions that rely heavily on web-based systems—such as banking, aviation, and hospitals—could potentially experience disastrous systems failures would become much too risky.
Ultimately, while countries such as China, India, and Russia may continue to play with the idea of closing themselves off from the global Internet, doing so will most likely result in cost and labor-intensive efforts that will likely not pay off in the end. The sheer prevalence and scale of the World Wide Web aided by advancing technologies such as 5G and blockchain, will make it increasingly difficult and costly for these nations to maintain the divide.