The second form of split is to continue to use technically compatible protocols, but with different governing bodies governing these services. This may prove more difficult to reverse.
If Russia, China, or some other country competes with the agencies that manage IP addresses and DNS and lets them form, it may be harder to get back together than they do to build a rival technology agreement. Vested interests will form, wanting to stay in one institution or the other, making the politics of reconnection nearly impossible.
So the problem of reconnecting these disparate networks to a global internet will be a political problem, not a technical one – but often the hardest political problem to solve.
There are still steps away from the complete fragmentation of the Internet that could still have a major impact on hindering the flow of global information or the normal functioning of the Internet in pariah conditions.
Due to the monopoly nature of the Internet, some services have quasi-infrastructure type status. Amazon Web Services, for example, runs so many internet backends that banning it from certain areas would be a headache. Likewise, cutting off access to github repositories can bring down many services, at least temporarily.
Russia has been seeking to mitigate this risk on official and public websites, trying to require them to repatriate data, use .ru domains, and minimize their use of overseas service providers. Amid the panic this week, some saw it as a directive to all Russian websites, even leading to alarmist (but so far unsubstantiated) articles suggesting Russia plans to cut ties to the internet entirely.
Other countries and groups try to mitigate the global nature of the internet, not just authoritarian states. The European Union has been seeking to require all data processed by its citizens to be processed within its borders, a move that has been fiercely resisted by U.S. tech giants.
At the same time, Iran has established state ties between its main online agencies, enabling it to operate a functioning Iran-only internet should it need to isolate itself from the global network or be activated by adversaries.
But China’s relationship with the internet may be the most complicated. While Chinese-born tech companies typically thrive in the West — look at TikTok — nearly every online service the Chinese use are Chinese companies. The country also operates a vast and routine form of online censorship, often referred to as China’s Great Firewall.
Charlie Smith* of GreatFire, which tracks China’s internet censorship (a pseudonym for doing business in China and criticizing its censorship policies), said its relationship to the global internet has changed over time.
“Initially, the service-level lockdown was driven by the sheer need for censorship. There was a need to hide information about Xi, or to cover up some major disaster that could be directly blamed on the government,” he said. “But with these foreign websites being blocked, Chinese entrepreneurs realize there is a gap in the market that can be filled.
“Not only did they fill those gaps, they also helped create Chinese internet companies that were as valuable as their Western counterparts, even though these Chinese companies may not have matured outside of China.”
Thanks to these long-standing independent agencies, Smith believes China could find ways to be cut off from the internet — but doing so is largely against its interests.
“I think China can isolate itself from the global internet if the domestic crisis is big enough… [but] I believe China will continue to rely on the global internet. Overseas Chinese are all over the world. No one wants to be cut off from their families. Businesses will still rely on selling their products overseas. “
Instead, China holds high-level positions in various governing bodies of the Internet — befitting a country with more than a billion Internet users — and is currently trying to slowly change standards, rules and protocols to suit itself.
Splitting the web is still quite possible – driven by politics rather than technology – but for now, everyone seems keen to hold on and try to push the fragile status quo in their favor, especially since the internet seems to allow Split, it may prove beyond repair.
James Ball is the Global Editor for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the author of The Tangled Web Weave: Inside the Shadow System That Shapes the Internet