Can a fragmented Internet governance stop Internet fragmentation?

by Michel Lambert

The Internet is a vital resource for communication, collaboration and creation with anyone, anywhere.  It is no longer possible to imagine our world without the Internet, the central nerve of the global economy.  We don’t yet realize its full potential in terms of knowledge, development and the common well-being of all humankind.

But the Internet is under threat. Increasingly, we’re talking about fragmentation, a complex phenomenon observed in particular when a user doesn’t get the same access to Internet services and spaces depending on where he or she is on the planet. These situations create inequalities, allowing some, but not others, to communicate freely with whomever they wish, and limiting access to often essential online services. In a fragmented Internet, multiple versions of the same information can exist on different networks.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) plays a fundamental role in the development of the Internet, enabling cooperation between multiple stakeholders on the issues and challenges emerging in the digital age.  Created by the United Nations, it is de facto the only multi-stakeholder process bringing together operators, governments and civil society to address these issues.

At the two most recent editions, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2022 and this year in Kyoto, Japan, the organizers added to the program a new series of debates on the theme of avoiding Internet fragmentation. At the same time, a sub-network of the forum, the Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation – PNIF, was created and began work to better understand the phenomenon and aim to propose policies to reduce its impact, where appropriate.

The race against time is on. Can the multi-stakeholder process of Internet governance still avoid fragmentation?


What is Internet fragmentation?

By definition, the Internet is a network of networks linked together by compatible technologies and protocols.  This is called interoperability, and it is this interoperability that creates the uniqueness of the Internet. A fragmented Internet is an Internet that is not the single, interoperable Internet to which we aspire.  This open, interoperable Internet that respects human rights and enables critical access remains an ideal. In fact, the Internet has never been so fragmented, but until recently these different levels of fragmentation seemed rather technical and consistent with its development. This was notably the case with the initial compatibility problems between IPv4 and IPv6 protocols, which for a time were able to cause a degree of fragmentation.

Researchers fear, however, that new, more significant layers of fragmentation, particularly political and commercial, could cause the Internet to malfunction or even break down.

At the political level, censorship measures such as those applied to the Internet in Myanmar after the coup d’état, or even more recently in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, are clear examples of fragmentation. These states literally decide what their users can see and do on their platforms.  Going even further, China’s desire to build its own version of the Internet has given rise to the term Spinternet.  This gives China total control over the content and platforms on its network, enabling it to monitor and globally censor a Chinese Internet that is de facto cut off from the rest of the global Internet. Other countries could follow suit, including Russia, which is already exploring several possibilities for building its own Runet.

At the same time, the reality of fragmentation is becoming a dominant notion in international relations.  There is growing talk of digital sovereignty and local control of content, and states are undertaking to regulate their digital exchanges through bi- or multilateral agreements known as Digital Economic Agreements (DEA).  Canada has also announced its intention to join the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement, an initiative currently involving New Zealand, Singapore and Chile, designed to address digital economy issues of interest to businesses, workers and consumers, such as artificial intelligence and digital identities.

The Global Affairs Canada website notes that DEPA membership would strengthen Canada’s position as a leader in the global digital economy, and give it a seat at the table for international rule-making.

This reality risks replacing the ideal of an open, interoperable and neutral Internet. Security issues and international trade policies are interfering with Internet development, increasing pressure for localization and competition policies. All these worrying developments may have an impact on multilateral cooperation and the willingness of states to become involved in so many multi-stakeholder bodies.

Fragmentation can therefore be caused by technical, governmental or commercial practices that involve control over what users can say and see online.  Fragmentation is defined as a set of barriers that prevents one user from accessing content and services that another user can access.


Fragmented global Internet governance

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a United Nations forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue on Internet governance issues. The IGF was established in the Tunis Agenda of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, as an open and inclusive forum to discuss public policy issues related to the technological, economic, legal and normative dimensions of the evolution and development of the Internet, its applications, content and uses.

Since its inception, the IGF has achieved global success as the premier multi-stakeholder venue for inclusive, cross-cutting discussions on Internet governance issues. Participation in the IGF’s annual meeting, as well as its organizational processes and intersessional work programs, has grown and continues to grow, at national, regional and international levels. IGF processes and core principles remain open and transparent, and developed in a bottom-up manner by the IGF community. The latest Global Internet Governance Forum was held in Kyoto, Japan, from October 8 to 12, 2023. The WSIS +20 Summit in 2 years’ time will review the next steps in the process.  The Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation (PNIF) is an offshoot of the IGF.

But the IGF may no longer be the only player.  Antonio Guterres recently launched the Global Digital Compact, which is due to be endorsed at the 2024 Summit of the Future to “define shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”.  This new process, clearly offering greater space to UN member governments, also promises to be open and inclusive of stakeholders. But not all governments are equally open…

Even more recently, there were rumours that Brazil would go ahead with its intention to organize NetMundial +10 in 2024.  The original NetMundial, held in 2014, was a unique event co-organized with ICANN to chart new avenues for global cooperation on Internet governance, with a particular focus on the countries of the South.  A structure, the NetMundial Initiative, was created after the conference to provide a platform to catalyze practical cooperation between all parties.

2025 will also see the holding of the WSIS +20 process, which should validate a possible 3rd mandate for the IGF and no doubt incorporate new approaches for an IGF process that should be even more inclusive.

These new initiatives, although in theory all in support of an open, interoperable Internet managed by equally open, multi-stakeholder processes, blur the lines.  They multiply the number of potential decision-making forums, and the investment required from each player to participate in the whole.  Civil society organizations, for example, will have to make choices when faced with the impossibility of sustaining their participation in so many sessions all over the world (and that’s without considering the multiplication of climate impacts of all these major summits).  In the end, it will essentially be governments and major technology firms that will be in a position to monitor all these processes.  Human rights issues could be relegated to the background, but above all, considering that the main risks to Internet fracking are political and commercial, giving precedence to these two sectors seems rather counter-productive and risky.

To complete this rather gloomy picture, the IGF 2024 has already been announced for Saudi Arabia, a nation that is far from unanimous in its respect for rights and the open Internet.  Several civil society organizations are already considering boycotting the IGF 2024, while Russia is seeking to confirm its wish to host the IGF 2025!


The Policy Network on Internet fragmentation (PNIF)

Formally created in 2021 by the multi-stakeholder bodies of the global IGF, the PNIF aims to deepen the debate on internet fragmentation – the concept, causes and effects – and explore ways to remedy fragmentation,

Nevertheless, the PNIF has developed a framework for discussing Internet fragmentation, with the aim of using it as an inclusive tool to guide further dialogue on fragmentation, and to involve more people and stakeholders.

The framework that emerged from the PNIF discussions conceptualizes three key dimensions of fragmentation

key dimensions of fragmentation :

  • fragmentation of the user experience,
  • fragmentation of the Internet’s technical layer, and
  • fragmentation of internet governance and coordination.

It shows that technical, political and commercial developments and their consequences can have an impact on fragmentation. It also analyzes the potential relationships and overlaps between these dimensions, between technical fragmentation, user experience fragmentation and governance fragmentation.

The PNIF proposes that a human rights framework be used to evaluate measures that have an impact on the user experience and determine whether these measures improve the user experience or have a negative impact and should therefore be avoided.

The interoperability of the global Internet infrastructure is proposed as a frame of reference for assessing technical fragmentation.

The Internet governance dimension aims to capture the commitment to multi-stakeholder management of the Internet’s technical layer, and the existence or absence of a global framework between multilateral and multi-stakeholder bodies, governments and stakeholders to address the issue of global fragmentation.

After two years, the network is still a long way from the original idea of adopting a code of conduct to prevent fragmentation. But four initial recommendations have emerged from its work.  The very first, which unfortunately does not appear to be the priority of the moment, is to avoid multiplying the number of places of debate in Internet governance!  Instead, we would like (2) to prioritize cooperation between the various bodies, (3) for all Internet governance bodies to allow meaningful participation by all stakeholders, and (4) for all bodies to engage more closely with governments.


Challenges and prospects

Even within the IGF, there are still analysts who question the factual existence of fragmentation.  These people base their conclusions solely on the technical perspective of Internet interoperability, which would seem to work overall if we didn’t consider China or the Runet threat!  Of course, they also fail to consider the experience of millions of users who suffer partial or total Internet shutdowns.  Between January and May 2013, the Access Now organization has already counted more than 80 Internet shutdowns in 21 countries!

It’s also safe to say that fragmentation is less of a concern for the major technology companies, whose business models are aimed precisely at capturing huge market shares by keeping users within their platforms and tools.  These models don’t fragment the Internet in any real way, but some companies have gone so far as to offer products that can be confused with the Internet, making it difficult to really access the Internet.

The debate on fragmentation within the IGF is progressing, but rather slowly given the importance of the issue. It remains difficult to conceive how far, and when, the PNIF will be able to go in its desire to propose a code of conduct to avoid fragmentation of the Internet.  Independently, it becomes even more hypothetical to expand on the potential of such a code.  Would it be accepted and adopted by all stakeholders? Would it be binding?

The multiplication of Internet governance forums over the next two years, notably with the launch of the Global Digital Compact process, in which the United Nations is in some ways competing with the process it has supported for 20 years, appears to be refocusing the discussion in favor of nation-states, which now wish to regulate the Internet, potentially through global agreements, but also in their own countries. The potential fragmentation of the Internet through regulation is increasingly seen as one of the main risks. The case of Canada is interesting in this context, as it has just legislated on online communication platforms that make available news from Canadian media.  Meta’s decision (expected to be taken over by Google in December) to no longer allow the redistribution of this content on its platforms creates a form of Internet fragmentation by depriving users of certain content, at the very time when Canada is seeking to join the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement.  As with the proliferation of bilateral trade agreements signed by the country over the past 20 years, it is conceivable that such agreements for the digital economy could be negotiated without transparency and then proliferate.  It’s too early to know what impact these agreements will have on non-signatory countries, but it’s possible to rationalize that these exclusions could lead to new forms of fragmentation.

In this context, it is to be hoped that the WSIS +20 process will not only enable the IGF to be renewed beyond 2025, but will also integrate debates from other processes to avoid the very fragmentation of the fragmentation debate.  But the challenge of maintaining a human rights framework in these debates while national policies and trade imperatives take up more and more space remains a major challenge.

In the meantime, increasing network outages and the proliferation of so-called “splinternets” will continue to represent a major challenge to the free flow of information and user interaction. Millions of people around the world are currently digitally isolated for a variety of reasons, and the risks of this situation worsening in the short term are real.







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