Western liberal hegemony has remained resilient in global Internet governance despite spirited calls to revise the outdated norms and standards. This hegemony came into being following the formation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the subsequent institutionalization of standards-developing organizations meant to ensure and maintain the openness, interconnectivity, and security of the Internet.
Despite this long-established Western hegemony, calls for the revision and reconstruction of the global Internet governance regime have grown louder in the past decade. This critique has been accompanied by a move towards bifurcation in the global Internet, with radically different foundational norms and standards. In short, this ‘bifurcation turn’ points towards a pluriverse with a multiplicity of approaches to governing the global Internet.
The Internet has long been constructed, imagined, represented, experienced, and celebrated as a unitary and universal global technical infrastructure. The reigning idea has been that a unitary Internet is good for humanity. Any deviation from this unity is presented as a ‘risk’ and ‘threat’ to be resisted.
The following essay challenges this discourse of embracing unity and decrying fragmentation in the global Internet. On the contrary, I foreground the need to embrace fragmentation and diversification of the Internet in line with calls to centre views and perspectives from the Global South. This argument dovetails with ongoing debates around decolonizing the Internet. Decolonial thinking as an analytical toolkit allows us to begin to question the received notion of a unitary Internet.
Historicizing Internet unity
Although the origins of the Internet date back to the United States of the 1960s, the US consolidated in the 1980s as the primary venue for drafting technical standards for the Internet due to the emergence of TCP/IP as the principal system of identifiers, the invention of email, and the emergence of the California-based Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
All these historical processes coincided with the emergence of the US as the dominant force in a unipolar world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. At this moment of neoliberal triumph, Francis Fukuyama (1992) was inspired to write The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that humanity had reached the end-point of ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. It is therefore unsurprising that the first generation of global cooperation in Internet governance consisted mostly of following a single set of California-made rules steeped in liberal values.
Current Internet governance norms and standards cannot be extricated from these contextual factors and dynamics. Today’s Internet remains characterized by elite and liberal continuities, predominantly shaped by values, languages, and epistemologies from the Global North. The Internet continues to underrepresent views, languages, and perspectives from the Global South.
The turn to ‘fragmentation’
Now, in the 2020s, the nature of world politics has changed. Instead of the unipolar world of the 1990s, we live in a multipolar environment, where various ideologies and perspectives coexist in complex but mutually beneficial ways. Given the deep-seated ideological contestations buffeting world politics, the idea of a unitary Internet is no longer universally shared. Regional and national initiatives aimed at mainstreaming alternative protocols, data localization and context-specific content regulation have surfaced. Calls for diversity, inclusion, and decolonization of the Internet have grown louder in a world where the coloniality of power, being, and knowledge is being resisted, and disrupted.
Two main arguments have dominated current discourses around global Internet governance. The first one is the idea that a unified global Internet governance should continue to inform standards and norms. The second one is the Internet fragmentation thesis, which holds that the Internet as we know it is splintering into multiple islands and nodes. On the one hand, advocates of unitary forms of Internet governance castigate Internet fragmentation as a bad thing. On the other hand, critics of unitary forms of Internet governance view diversity and inclusion as crucial for the realization of online pluralism and a multiplicity of stakeholder voices.
Talk of Internet fragmentation has recently gathered storm, signifying an apparent shift in approach to global Internet governance. Instead of relying on ‘one best way’ of global Internet governance, many commentators now advocate for diversity, differences and plural global Internet governance norms and standards. We thereby increasingly witness the normalization of discourses around divergence, difference, and diversity.
The concept of ‘splinternet’ has received a lot scholarly and policy making attention in recent years. It refers to a situation where the Internet becomes fragmented, and divided, into a multitude of non-interoperable nodes and networks. The notion of ‘splinternet’ assumes that the Internet is peeling off into walled gardens such that the former centre (mainly US-based) can no longer hold.
Internet fragmentation can happen at the level of infrastructure and of content. Infrastructure fragmentation refers to (planned) obsolescence, Internet outages, the division of the DNS root, incompatible protocols, Network Address Translation, application-layer incompatibilities, network interference, and the absence of device and net neutrality. Content fragmentation denotes a situation where technical connectivity is maintained, but users are restricted regarding access to information and data on the Internet. Content fragmentation often manifests through data localization and content filtering practices.
A wide range of factors can encourage Internet splintering (Mueller 2017). They include technology, commerce, politics, nationalism, religion, and divergent state interests. Besides technical and commercial factors, it is important to flag the role of states and their strategic interests, which have contributed immensely to Internet fragmentation.
Evidence of Internet fragmentation
Whilst the idea of a single global Internet anchored in ROAM principles of human Rights, Openness, Accessibility, and Multi-stakeholder participation has been bandied about, evidence on the ground suggests that national governments and corporations are pushing for the adoption of a cyber-sovereignty model of Internet governance.
Patterns of fragmentation are already evident in various parts of the world. For instance, China and Russia have forged ways to balkanize their own national Internets. As elaborated in Nanni’s contribution to this issue, the Chinese telecommunications firm, Huawei, has proposed to launch a new Internet Protocol. Plans to nationalize hardware, software and regulations are also likely to further fragment the Internet. China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have developed national firewalls to control Internet traffic. Other national governments have introduced data localization requirements as well as imposing new obligations for Internet service providers.
In Africa, the fragmentation of the Internet has manifested itself through the introduction of social media bundles, Internet shutdowns, and underinvestment in Internet infrastructure in non-lucrative markets such as rural areas. Countries such as Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe have experienced state-ordered Internet shutdowns during social unrest and elections (Mare 2020). Countries such as Nigeria and Uganda have implemented technical and content fragmentation following standoffs with Twitter and Facebook, respectively. These corporates have also shown that they can fragment the Internet through exercising their deplatforming power. Africa is also highly implicated in fragmentation tendencies through its overdependence on externally based global telecommunication companies. Most ICT infrastructure in Africa is imported from China, the US, and Western Europe, which predisposes the continent to the ripple effects of Internet fragmentation.
Is Internet fragmentation a bad thing?
Scholars and experts have reacted to Internet fragmentation in different ways. Dominant voices, manifested also in several contributions to this forum, tend to support the established principle of Internet unity and resist the idea of fragmentation. However, others are embracing the fragmentation of the Internet.
Unfortunately, most of the debate on Internet fragmentation and diversification has so far occurred in the Global North, where many think tanks and policy makers are already deeply engaged with the matter. Much less is heard from the Global South, and there is deafening silence on the issue in Africa.
In a multipolar and multicultural world, embracing the idea of a fragmented Internet will help us to decolonize cyberspace and engender online pluralism and diversity. It also helps us to deal with cultural imperialism that has been normalized through technological globalization. I argue that what the mainstream press and power centres often call a ‘threat of fragmentation’ can equally and better be interpreted as an ‘opportunity for diversification’. This point is particularly poignant when it comes to marginalized world regions whose data and ‘free’ labour are systematically exploited by Big Tech platforms from the East and the West.
There are several potential benefits associated with fragmentation and diversification of the Internet. Firstly, fragmentation is beneficial to digital sovereignty, as it allows state actors to better exercise their powers over the digital public sphere. In pushing this argument, I am not oblivious of the fact that cybersovereignty can easily be abused by authoritarian regimes to further oppress and muzzle alternative voices. Secondly, fragmentation promotes the idea of data localization. Data localization requires data about country's citizens or residents to be collected, processed, and/or stored inside its territory, often before being transferred internationally. Thus, localizing data is a good thing because data becomes more physically accessible. Furthermore, local data is easier to maintain. Thirdly, commercial walled gardens allow companies to create well-integrated, efficient, and user-friendly equipment and services, ultimately benefiting the user, and increasing the security of products and services. Fourthly, fragmentation has the potential to enhance online pluralism. Whilst the unified Internet has been presented as having the potential to increase the chances of marginalized voices reaching all corners of the planet, a splinternet has immense potential to allow various flowers to blossom without being suffocated by content from the Global North.
Towards decolonized Internets
Closely connected with the idea of a fragmented and diversified Internet is the issue of pushing for the attainment of a ‘decolonized Internet’ (Acey et al. 2021). In its various manifestations, decoloniality is concerned with delinking and disrupting the global imperial agendas of the current model of the Internet. It emphasizes the need to promote multiple ways of being, becoming, and belonging. It is based on the idea that the current unitary form of Internet is ‘incomplete’ and does not allow for alternative forms of Internets to thrive.
Calls for a decolonized Internet seek to decentre and deconstruct the racialized nature of the unified Internet associated with white dominance. It endeavours to ensure that the Internet becomes a hub of various co-existing cultures, languages, epistemic frameworks, knowledges, infrastructures, and economies. Instead of just adding new platforms, languages, applications, and user practices, a decolonial argument is concerned with disrupting the existing resilient structural relations and hierarchies that flow from a unified version of the global Internet.
Decolonized versions of the Internet acknowledge diversity and differences that anchor and shape norms and standards within the framework of Internet governance. It goes beyond the ‘one best way’ model of global Internet governance. It foregrounds multiplicity and multiperspectival norms and standards.
Furthermore, a decolonized version of the Internet seeks to dismantle the current form of Internet built on the expropriation of labour, resources, and culture from colonized spaces and subjects. Social justice and redress inform the norms and standards of Internet governance in a decolonized environment. The quest is to undo the reproduction of oppression, dispossession, and new forms colonialisms associated with data and digital capitalism.
Decolonial thinking raises key questions: Whose Internet is it anyway? Whose interests does the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance promote? Whose language does the Internet universalize? Whose infrastructure does the Internet deploy? Whose global Internet governance values and standards does it normalize?
In short, embracing fragmentation and foregrounding decolonized Internets has the potential to democratize the Internet. It also has the potential to unlock technical effectiveness with regard to data localization, distributive justice, cultural management, cultural politics, and ecological integrity.
 These expressions were coined by Anibal Quijano (2000) to name the structures of power, control, and hegemony that have emerged during the modernist era, the era of colonialism, which stretches from the conquest of the Americas to the present.
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Bateman, Jon (2022). US-China Technological ‘Decoupling’ A Strategy and Policy Framework, Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, available at: https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Bateman_US-China_Decoupling_final.pdf (accessed 23 May 2022).
Fukuyama, Francis (1992). The End of History and the Last Man, New York, NY: Free Press.
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Mueller, Milton (2017). Will the Internet Fragment? Sovereignty, Globalization and Cyberspace, Cambridge: UK: Polity.
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About the Author
Admire Mare is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. His research interests include analyzing the intersection between technology and society, digital journalism, social media and politics, media and democracy and political communication. He currently leads the international research project Social Media, Misinformation and Elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe (SoMeKeZi) funded by the Social Science Research Council (2019–2023). He is co-author of Participatory Journalism in Africa (Routledge, 2021); Digital Surveillance in Southern Africa (Springer, 2022); Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding in Africa (Routledge, 2021); and Teaching and Learning with Digital Technologies in Higher Education Institutions in Africa (Routledge, 2022).