Is today’s Internet increasingly splintered? Many observers argue that what was once a united Internet is becoming fragmented, whether in its technical, commercial and/or regulatory segments. These discussions tend to be framed in binary terms, in which the Internet is seen to be either as one or many entities. Such depictions are rather simplistic, however. The concept of polycentrism offers an alternative, more nuanced formulation of the problem. Rather than posing unity and diversity as contending models for Internet governance, polycentrism suggests that fragmentation (‘poly’) and unification (‘centrism’) interweave in a single dynamic.
Splinternet: Metaphor or reality?
Polycentrism is a concept that started with the works of Michael Polanyi in the 1950’s to address the existence of multiple centres of authority in social systems (Aligica and Tarko 2012); it then evolved to include the relationships between these different centres and the actors that hold authority and power (Ostrom 2005); and more recently it has been adopted as an analytical construct to bridge the fluid, trans-scalar, diffuse and chaotic problems of contemporary global governance (Koinova et al. 2021), with the Internet fitting squarely into this category.
The division of the Internet may be promoted consciously, most of the time by political actors with a will to ascertain control of the Internet and attempt to make it fit into its jurisdictional boundaries (Mueller 2020; Musiani and Ermoshina 2022). However, the private sector has also played a role in fuelling this trend, using business models and technical instruments (Drake et al. 2016; Perarnaud et al. 2022) that have favoured platforms with strong gatekeeping rules, restricting the flow of data across companies and jurisdictions.
The governance of the Internet cannot be understood nor challenged by one single policy, actor or even epistemic framing in a trans-scalar and trans-sectorial approach. The Internet has faced since its early days different centres of authority that have all been key to the network’s expansion. At the infrastructure layer, the undersea cables and major infrastructure for connectivity are deployed by specialized companies, most of them from the private sector. These operate in an environment of norms and rationalities that have evolved from the telegraph to the complex international telecommunications regime. The layer of content and applications involves the use of data and is contingent to a different set of political and commercial incentives. It is increasingly regulated by national authorities in the areas of competition, data protection, elections, intellectual property, law enforcement and human rights, to name just a few of the different centres of authority with limited power over their specific domains. These issues are mostly dependent on the regulatory capacity and will of national authorities, but there are increasing initiatives by multilateral bodies or multi-stakeholder arrangements to address them at regional and global levels. The content layer has historically challenged the norms and practices that have driven global Internet interoperability, its unity and the central normative component of the TCP/IP.
From an analytical lens of polycentric governance, encompassing normative, practice and underlying-order levels (Scholte 2021), the splintering of today’s Internet is becoming more visible while other forces provide for a certain degree of coordination. Norms are not necessarily formal and legal. They nevertheless shape the perceptions of what is inherently good and affect structural power dynamics. The standards and coordination organizations and operators that willingly adopt the TCP/IP protocol suite manage to interconnect over 70,000 networks that converge to the global Internet. These shared technical standards act as norms that provide unified strategies and responses to communications networking. The level of practices invokes what is actually performed along discursive, material, behavioural and institutional dimensions (Scholte 2021). Many of these practices have consolidated over decades in and across different Internet governance institutions, including those with responsibilities for coordinating the Internet’s unique identifiers. Peering operations in the exchange of traffic between networks is an example of the consolidation of practices with normative components that have been in place for decades, in particular the public peering model through an Internet Exchange Point, where one network can peer with other networks through a single connection, based on largely informal handshake agreements. Finally, the underlying orders of these arrangements, i.e. invisible yet powerful understandings of ‘how things should be’, are all deeply embedded in libertarian ideals of the origins of the Internet in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s together with conceptions of capitalism and techno-colonialism (Madianou 2019).
The next section elaborates briefly on two recent, controversial and extreme cases of attempts to fragment the Internet: the New IP (Internet Protocol) proposal by China and the contentions around controlling and cutting off the Internet from and by Russia. The last section draws on the concept of polycentricity to explain why these were not entirely successful (Koinova et al. 2021).
Attempts to splinter the global Internet: The cases of China and Russia
The ‘New IP’ proposed by Chinese companies within the International Telecommunication Union in 2018 is a demonstration of how the most ‘central’ normative feature of the Internet, the TCP/IP protocol is being contested and even questioned in its efficacy to address the challenges from new networking standards, such as 5G, among other claims that are presented as purely technical issues but have profoundly political consequences. Huawei and other companies, backed by the Chinese government and its allies, claim that this new set of protocols will enhance security and bring greater control to network operators with embedded features of quality of service. ‘New IP’s vision for an alternative networking model would inherently splinter, if not entirely replace, the existing Internet’ (Taylor et al. 2022: 20). It does so by precisely embedding centralization and authority – both technical but also legal – into the way in which different networks communicate among themselves and with their users. The New IP attempts to contest the polycentric, fluid and even chaotic nature of the Internet and its governance (Scholte 2017).
The role of the Internet in the Ukraine war has been a recent cause for research. Debates on the splinternet have multiplied as Russian authorities have tried to cut off content, protocols and network infrastructure from the global Internet. The illusion of control by creating a ‘Russian Internet’ has used norms, practices and underlying orders with different measures of success in breaking apart from the international Internet.
Conversely, the call from Ukraine’s government in late February to cut off Russia from the Internet through the suspension of its Top-Level Domain and other Internet identifiers was firmly opposed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and RIPE, the Regional Internet Registry with jurisdiction to assign IP resources, adhering to the long-standing principle of interoperability. As noted by the CEO of ICANN in a 2 March 2022, letter in response to such a request ‘Such a change in the process would have devastating and permanent effects on the trust and utility of this global system’. The credibility and the legitimacy of the organizations involved in the management and governance of critical Internet resources would have been jeopardized, and more so in the case of ICANN with the motto ‘One World, One Internet’. The sole idea of one institutional actor having the power to disconnect, unplug or cut-off a country from the Internet has been anathema from the sociotechnical imaginaries (Abbate 1999) that are underlying orders of this network.
Unpacking the splinternet from a polycentric approach
Polycentric governance theorizing takes into account different actor constellations operating with multiple rationalities, normative orientations, ethical concerns, technologies and institutional arrangements (Gadinger and Scholte forthcoming). At the same time, these theories also focus on multiple centres of authority and power and examine a variety of connections that bind these different practices and spaces together.
In the case of Russia, while there are various actors, motives and mechanisms to cut off the Russian Internet from the global one, this has not been fully achieved. The polycentric nature of Internet governance, with its diffused and contradictory norms, practices and underlying orders (Scholte 2021) can explain this outcome. Despite the threats from the Russian government to curb online dissidence, the government needs a connected Internet to perpetuate its attacks abroad through its cyberwar, much in the same way as political actors in opposition to the Putin government also engage in these activities through the same infrastructure. The concerns for Russian civilians and organized civil society challenging the regime are also factors that drive ‘the West’ and its allies to maintain Russia’s connectivity to the international Internet. While the authority of the Russian government has prevailed over freedom on the net and interconnection to the global Internet, this power is by no means absolute, and internally contested by conflicting norms and practices that it cannot entirely control.
A polycentric lens also helps to interpret the tensions emerging from different rationalities and interests between the Chinese government and Chinese tech companies. China aims to become a global political power, something that can only be achieved by consolidating its economic fronts, particularly in digital technologies for communications. At the same time, China cannot fully exercise its authority neither de jure nor de facto outside its jurisdiction, though it is improving both means. The conflicting interests of the Chinese government with those of many Western government, particularly reflected in the ban of Huawei 5G technology and the threat of banning TikTok in the US in 2019, illustrate how constellations of actors and rationalities can sometimes align and other times contradict each other. However, the degree of control, i.e. the centralization of the network in all its layers, as exercised by the Chinese government, is almost unprecedented in terms of power and authority internationally.
Actor constellations emerge in both the Russian and Chinese attempts to control the Internet, not only by exercising policing functions and authority within their own jurisdictions, but also in efforts that have partially, but not fully, severed their ties with the ‘global’ Internet. From a polycentric lens, these efforts generate more diversity in terms of global governance of the Internet, as there are more centres of power and authority with a different set of norms, practices and underlying orders from those that have predominated in the first two decades of the Internet’s expansion. At the same time, these efforts undermine polycentric governance for the Internet within their jurisdictions, by weakening diversity within their national Internet spaces. Polycentrism allows to unpack the tensions that emerge in the politics and practices around the splinternet, and how it becomes the metaphor of contestation of a ‘unified Internet’.
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About the Author
Carolina Aguerre is an Associate Professor at Universidad Catolica del Uruguay and visiting professor at Universidad de San Andres (Argentina). She is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research (GCR21), University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany).