Unity and Diversity in the Global Internet: The Question of Access

Farzaneh Badii

As other contributions have shown, there is much confusion around the issue of Internet fragmentation. Some argue that having different languages on the Internet constitutes fragmentation, while others believe Internet fragmentation to involve theblocking of content and/or service to certain territories and users. This article does not aim to reach a comprehensive definitive definition of Internet fragmentation, as it is not possible to resolve such ambiguities completely. Instead, it seeks to describe one kind of fragmentation and to see what effects this has on the Internet and its users.

Indeed, attending to the question of what exactly fragmentation is can distract us from what might be regarded as the most fundamental kind of fragmentation: deliberate denial of access to the Internet. What matters even more than having a single system of identifiers is for people to have entry to that system. In many cases, people lack access to the internet because they lack the necessary cables, devices, and software. Today, this constitutes around 30 per cent of the world’s population. In other cases, however, people with the necessary technical equipment are deliberately excluded from exchanges on the Internet. This article is concerned with the latter group.

Here, I discuss several scenarios that can affect the access that people have to the Internet, based on discriminatory measures such as nationality. These scenarios (related to cloud services, peer networks, and app stores) offer insights into what is needed to keep the Internet open, secure, global, and interoperable. For each scenario, I assess whether ‘critical properties of the Internet’ are at stake. Critical properties of the Internet are of utmost importance, as lack of access to these properties can lead to lack of access to the global Internet. I examine situations where restrictions on cloud services, peer networks, and app stores can result in lost access to the Internet and ask whether, in such cases, alternatives are available that can ensure continued Internet use for everyone.

Critical properties of the Internet

‘Critical properties of the Internet’ are conditions without which the Internet cannot exist, even if we would have a network. The Internet Society enumerates these properties as:

  1. An Accessible Infrastructure with a Common Protocol
  2. Open Architecture of Interoperable and Reusable Building Blocks
  3. Decentralized Management and a Single Distributed Routing System
  4. Common Global Identifiers
  5. A Technology Neutral, General-Purpose Network.

Consider the Internet infrastructure and Internet numbering systems (the common global identifiers). Computers on the Internet address each other through long strings of numbers. These numbers are Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and Autonomous System (AS) numbers. Policies, regulations, and technical problems that curtail the distribution of IP addresses might have the highest impact on the unity of the Internet in the sense of excluding potential users. If IP addresses are unregistered, then they do not work on the Internet at all, which means that whole Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can be taken offline. Lack of access to IP addresses prevents people from going online in the first place, as opposed to being denied certain services once they are online.

In the following section, I explain how certain elements and services become critical properties of the Internet by way of policy and collective action by using the examples of cloud services, peering and content delivery networks, and app stores. These three services may not be ‘critical properties’ as such but rather channels that exhibit critical properties which are essential to the unity of the Internet and on which people have come to depend.


Cloud services: Content and service governance

Cloud services are a way of providing computing and network services in a flexible, on-demand way. Rather than purchasing or renting dedicated computers in dedicated spaces in specific data centres, a cloud service user contracts for certain service parameters and leaves the delivery of such services up to the cloud service provider. Today, cloud services provide basic infrastructure for websites, companies, and social media platforms. Some, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Cloudflare, have their own content and service governance policies. Because of the popularity of cloud services and the reliance of major businesses and websites on these services, sometimes governance and technical failures can hamper access to these services for some users, which in turn can negatively impact the unity of the Internet.

Sometimes economic sanctions are used to deprive users based in certain territories of cloud services. Economic sanctions are usually trade restriction measures that governments put in place to change the behaviour of another government, often because of the former’s alleged violation of international norms. The impact of depriving users of certain (but not all) services, as long as those services are not critical properties of the Internet, might not drastically affect the unity of the Internet.

However, sometimes a few powerful actors get together and deny service to certain users, generating a domino effect whereby the user cannot find an alternative platform to host their website. For example, several major cloud service providers have introduced content governance at the cloud level. AWS and Cloudflare have content governance policies that refuse to serve websites that act against their terms of service.

True, certain alternatives to big cloud services are still available, though it can be difficult to access them. For instance, a user could buy racks of machines, a lot of network transit, and rent space in large data centres and host a website that way. However, such options are expensive and often more fragile than using cloud services. Hence, when alternatives to dominant cloud services are not abundant, accessibility of Internet infrastructure can be negatively affected.


Peering and content delivery networks

Peering is a networking technique in which one network operator agrees with another network operator – a ‘peer’ – to route network traffic to and from that peer directly, rather than going through some intermediate transit. Peering can either require payment to offset the difference

in flows from one peer to another or it can be ‘settlement free’, where the peers agree that their respective traffic is close enough to equivalent that no invoices will be issued in either direction. Peering is especially common where many network operators converge (usually called an Internet exchange point, often abbreviated IXP). Content delivery networks such as Akamai, Azure, and others generally benefit from peering and many of them maintain an open peering policy. An open peering policy means that any other networks can peer with the open peering network, normally without any monetary cost. But while open peering generally includes any network, it does not mean that networks based in sanctioned countries can easily peer with others. For example, if peering is also deemed to be a ‘transaction’, then, in the absence of clarification from the sanctioning authority, sanctions might well be applied. IXPs that are subject to sanctions might have to de-peer with sanctioned members (as it happened to the London Internet Exchange which had to de-peer from two Russian networks). De-peering does not completely diminish access to the ‘de-peered’ network and access to a unified Internet. However, it does hamper the quality of access to the Internet for that network (and because it is at the infrastructure level, to all services/websites on the Internet for the users of that network).


App stores

Over-reliance on apps that are available through dominant app stores might affect a single open internet. Today’s Internet users are very much reliant on phone-based applications for taking taxis, checking maps, authenticating users, and accessing countless other services (sometimes even access to email services). Yet, the app store might have restrictive measures to host the app. Some services limit their own usage to apps only and do not allow use of the service via general-purpose web browsers, which exacerbates any limits imposed by app stores and the app providers themselves. If downloading certain apps is not possible or the app store or the app provider block access of certain users, the unity of the Internet is not diminished yet but access to some online services is. Many cases have arisen where app stores remove apps because ofviolation of terms of service. Another reason for app removal is geographical restrictions or ‘economic sanctions’. For example, Apple’s App Store blocked hosting apps from certain countries (such as Iran and Russia). Apps can also restrict the access of certain IP addresses and geo-restrict users. While app stores and apps in general have yet to become part of the critical properties of the Internet, limitations on downloading apps hampers access to services on the Internet. If app stores become our point of entry to the global Internet, then the unity of the Internet might be affected.


Concluding remarks

The narrative that Internet fragmentation has already happened and that we are now only picking up the pieces overstates the case. It is still possible to step back from total exclusionary fragmentation and focus on the inclusionary unity of the Internet. Still, notable forces tend to interfere with access to the Internet.

Until now, we have fortunately mostly maintained minimum access to the critical properties of the Internet for those who already have access. Still, we need to consider factors that can diminish online presence and, eventually, the overall unity of the Internet. We also need to monitor the future evolution of the Internet to see whether other elements (such as apps) can become its critical properties and affect the Internet as we know it.


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About the Author

Farzaneh Badii holds a PhD in law from Hamburg University. For over a decade she has undertaken research about Internet governance in centers such as Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Yale Law School and Georgia Institute of Technology. She is the founder of Digital Medusa, an advisory that focuses on research and policy related to Internet infrastructure and social media platforms.