The Consequences of a “Balkanized” Internet
The age of global internet is ending (John Naughton of the Guardian discusses why here). Essentially, the United States has managed to destroy worldwide trust in its ability to keep the internet a sacred place for communication and information sharing in part due to Edward Snowden’s leaks. Because the US is home to important internet hubs such as Amazon and Google, most of the information shared online passes through the United States at some point in time, and therefore is picked up by the NSA. John Naughton predicts that because other countries governments, citizens, and businesses do not want their information being shared without their permission, they will stop turning to these American companies for their internet needs. He calls this the “Balkanization,” or the fragmentation of the internet.
Using the phrase “Balkanization” obviously invokes thoughts of World War I, and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which served as the metaphorical fuse for the Balkan gunpowder keg. Why would Mr. Naughton choose to reference this historically tense region in his prediction of the internet’s future, when he could have chosen a much more simple word, such as fragmentation?
Throughout history, mankind has seen many frontiers develop and has subsequently conquered these frontiers, be they physical frontiers, economic frontiers, or now technological frontiers. Colonialization, industrialization, and the space race have all been competitions to between countries aiming to make the most of this “frontier opportunity.” The internet is the new frontier. It serves as the spark plug for economies worldwide. It allows people to communicate faster and in ways never before imagined. It is improved upon daily with new startup companies, new breakthroughs in coding, development of new infrastructure allowing for faster and more convenient use, etc. However, until now it had managed to be almost completely a mutual endeavor, a worldwide effort to disseminate knowledge and cultural understanding. Rather than distancing nations and people through fragmentation, it served as the primary means to bring everyone a little bit closer.
Now this is changing. Look at China as an example of what the future of the internet could bring. China’s government does not allow its citizens to use Facebook, Twitter, or Google. It has its own companies that have essentially replicated these websites for Chinese use (Renren, Weibo, and Baidu respectively). Unless an American citizen creates an account on Weibo or Renren, their connectivity and ability to communicate with people living in China is greatly diminished. The Chinese people use Baidu rather than Google, which is censored by the Chinese government.
North Korea and Iran serve as two other examples of internet freedom stifled by government. In North Korea, outside of a few government officials, no one has internet access at all. Prior to the recent presidential poll in Iran, internet access was restricted to a degree that was previously unimaginable. Options exist to escape internet restrictions like the “Great Firewall” in China, called VPNs (virtual private networks). However, Iran managed to shut down these VPNs prior to their new president’s selection. The fact that technology in the wrong hands can limit a people’s access to internet in such a manner that there is no method to escape censorship is absolutely terrifying.
If the internet “Balkanizes” as John Naughton predicts, this could devastate the worldwide information sharing and the speed of technological advancement, as well as harming cultural understandings along the way. The internet has provided regular people with opportunities to connect with foreign colleagues and strangers, to practice academic freedom, and gain perspectives outside of those that they may encounter in their day-to-day lives. The fragmentation of the internet endangers the existence of these opportunities and threatens to render these experiences a piece of the past. Not only this, but with a lack of cultural understanding and the freedom to undertake international endeavors so easily, the fragmentation of the internet threatens peace and diplomacy. Maybe “Balkanize” is a more fitting term than it seems.
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