Depending on where you are in the world, the internet already looks very different.
In China, for example, users can’t access many digital staples which have become deeply entrenched in western discourse, including Google Search, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Furthermore, any attempts to access several news sites, including the New York Times, Bloomberg, BBC China, the Economist, and many others will come up short.
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And you can forget about pornography.
While China represents the world’s most extreme example of internet regulation, experts note that the massive country isn’t the only one imposing restrictions on the services from multi-billion dollar internet giants.
This led Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and current chairman of its parent company Alphabet, to predict at an event this past September that there would one day be at least two distinct internets: one led by the United States and one led by China.
What does the internet look like today?
With the Chinese ban of Google Search, the tech giant recently announced that it would build a customized search engine for China that meets the stringent content requirements of the government.
“This has been going on for a while. We have laws that are different in different territories and make what you see online different in those different territories, said Mark Bartholomew, a professor at the University of Buffalo Law School.
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He notes that Europe has also begun taking steps toward imposing more stringent restrictions on the actions of internet companies operating in the region.
In the General Data Protection Laws (GDPR) handed down this past May in the European Union, companies must be clear about their data collection policies by revealing exactly what kind of information they’ll be harvesting — including personal data such as full name, home, location data, IP address, etc — and how they’ll be using it.
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“The European Union is flexing a bit more muscle. We’ve always had a bit of a big difference between what the internet looks like in China and the western world, and now we’re seeing some more distinctions between the European Union and the United States,” Bartholomew explained.
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The United States, China, and the European Union, he concludes, are forming the foundation for what could one day become three separate interests — or at least, an internet divided across geographical lines with citizens being able to access very different kinds of content depending on where they live.
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A New York Times op-ed piece took Schmidt’s prediction a step further, suggesting that with recent regulations handed down by the European Union, there could, in fact, be three.
Mark Raymond, an assistant professor of international security at the University of Oklahoma, added that the division of the internet is currently taking place at the content layer as countries begin to close legislative loopholes in digital policy.
“At the surface level what that might mean is different sort of content layer, or application layer — internet experiences where users are using different kinds of platforms based on the country or regions that they live in. So we really, in some ways, are already there,” he said.
He notes that even today, Chinese citizens use alternative search engines and social media platforms due to political restrictions.
On a more local note, Netflix users in Canada and the United States don’t have access to the same content mainly due to licensing restrictions and intellectual property rights.
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“At the content layer, we’re already there and we’re likely to continue down that road,” Raymond said.
Could the internet ever be split up Like, for real?
Beyond different internet experiences in different parts of the world, some wonder whether the alternative “internets” could ever spring up to serve different geographical regions.
“It’s entirely feasible from a technical perspective. Arguably, you can already see the shape of it in the way that certain countries manage their physical borders through virtual firewalls or other technology-based solutions that limit and prevent the free flow of information,” said Byron Holland, president and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA).
Holland explained that the there are several “root” servers around the world that essentially act as an “authoritative address book” for the internet. In order to opt out of the main services, countries would have to take steps to block the “actual internet” (much the way China is beginning to do) and set up their own root servers around the world.
Raymond adds that in order for any one nation to take that leap, considering the likely huge price tag, they’d have to “really want it.”
“At the physical layer, yes it’s possible but it’s very very expensive. For countries to pull the trigger on that, to exercise that sort of exit option, they have to really want it, and there has to be a huge incentive for them to do that,” Raymond said.
For this reason, this option remains — while not impossible — less likely.
What do these restrictions mean for the future of the internet?
When asked if the advent of restrictions on the internet is simply disruption being regulated — the same way Uber and automobiles were eventually regulated after flipping the transportation industry on its head — he insists that this is different.
“It is fair for governments, and I would argue it’s their responsibility, to protect their citizens from bad actors on the internet… Protecting their citizens is an entirely different thing than forcing their citizens to only see a very small and controlled view of what’s out there on the free and open internet,” he said.
The idea of the internet as a democratizing force, he said, isn’t idealistic. It’s what actually happened.
“It’s about the internet that brought three billion people online. That created, originally, democratization, the transfer of education, wealth generation unlike any other entity probably ever. Including the industrial revolution, or the printing press, or the steam engine, or quite frankly the Bible, for that matter,” he said.
Bartholomew and Raymond agree that the spirit of the internet is one of openness, but it’s important to distinguish between the internet of the late 20th century, and the internet of today.
“The internet could be used for objectionable purposes as well as beneficial ones,” Raymond notes.
However, Holland insists that some elements of the spirit of the internet should be maintained.
“It’s had more impact on more people for good than any other entity probably in history. And I don’t think I’m actually overselling that.”