Get ready for the “splinternet”: The web might not be worldwide much longer
Article by Michael Grothaus – Fast Company magazine
12 September 2018
It’s 2028. You take a break from running your small business to check on how your daughter is enjoying her summer trip across Asia and find out which country she’s visiting now. You sent her a WhatsApp message three days ago but it still hasn’t been delivered, suggesting she has left Japan and must be in one of the region’s countries that don’t have an agreement with the U.S. on internet cooperation and access–perhaps China or the Philippines.
Returning to work, an email lands in your inbox from your business partner who is in France drumming up sales. He’s just read the latest headlines about how the American president is threatening to revoke the EU’s access to America’s national intranet, claiming that there’s an unfair balance in digital trade. The EU vows to retaliate–cutting off American companies from almost 600 million users on the EUnet. You reply to the email, trying to reassure your business partner that there is nothing to worry about–yet.
But the news worries you, so you tune into the current live feed of the American president giving a stump speech to a rally of supporters. She boasts of all the progress made since the “cyber-9/11” attack five years ago when foreign actors hacked into half of all smart cars in America and caused thousands of deaths and billions in damage, leading America to erect a digital wall around its internet, effectively making it the largest intranet in the Western world. She claims that foreign cyber attacks have been virtually eliminated since then and that America now wields unprecedented clout in trade and digital access pact negotiations with other countries.
In this future, going online is a very different experience. The global and open internet that existed from the early 1990s to the 2020s doesn’t exist anymore. Most countries with the economic and infrastructure resources to do so have severed themselves from the worldwide web in favor of creating national intranets walled in by national borders. These intranets arose amid growing nationalism and populism, increasing trade protectionism, and mounting national security concerns. And every major industry–from banking to healthcare to energy–has moved its operations entirely online, making a nation’s critical infrastructure and services more vulnerable to attack from a foreign state or rogue actor than if they had stayed connected on the same global and open web.
It is a world in which the norm is a series of national intranets; walled gardens with different standards and built on different technologies that governments say provide greater national security. It is a world in which some nations are completely cut off from other nations online–making something as simple as sending an email to a friend in another country impossible unless those two countries have digital access pacts with each other. And it is a world in which granting access to a country’s online users is wielded like an economic–and even geopolitical–weapon.
This scenario is an extreme version of what is colloquially referred to as the “splinternet”–a fractured version of the global web. But we’re already seeing the beginnings of such a future.
THE RISE OF NATIONAL INTRANETS
This world of nationalized, sequestered internets is already happening. The most obvious example, though not the most apt for the scenario laid out above, is China. While China’s internet isn’t completely cut off from the rest of the world, access to it and from it to the global internet is highly controlled via the country’s Great Firewall. Right now this is more about blocking its citizens’ access to the outside world, and what the government sees as undesirable, information than it is about protecting the country’s national security from external forces.
But increasingly China and other like-minded nations are considering ways to further cut themselves off from the world wide web–a web predominantly built on technology and infrastructure made by U.S. companies and controlled by U.S. tech giants–in other words, an internet that exports American influence and soft power around the world.
For China to fulfill our 2028 scenario, it would need to follow in the footsteps of Iran. Since 2012, that country has taken the steps to build its own national intranet cut off from the world wide web. This intranet, colloquially known as the “halal net” is not simply one that uses a great firewall to block undesirable sites, but one whose hardware backbone of cables, servers, and data centers is physically separate from the worldwide web.
To have the physical infrastructure of a national internet physically separated from the open web makes it hugely more difficult for a foreign country to launch a cyber attack on the halal net without physical access to its hardware backbone. And it’s not just Iran that is working on a national intranet. North Korea has long had one, known as Bright Star, while Cuba has a completely nationalized intranet called RedCubana.
These countries join other repressive governments like those in Egypt and Myanmar in using restrictive intranet policies as tools to keep their own citizens uninformed and disempowered. For example, users of Cuba’s internet are widely surveilled and dissident bloggers can have their devices confiscated or they can be detained, according to a report from Freedom House. In Egypt, users are finding certain websites or social media pages critical of the government are increasingly being removed. In 2016, Egyptian President Sisi bragged that “with the assistance of two web brigades, I can shut down the pages, take them over and make them my own.” And in Vietnam, online activists are monitored and have been “subjected to physical attacks, job loss, severed internet access, travel restrictions, and other rights violations,” according to Freedom House.
I know what you are thinking: sure, maybe national intranets could arise in authoritarian regimes, but never in capitalist, liberal democracies. However, that’s not the case. Beginning in 2013, Brazil, India, and South Africa joined Russia and China in constructing a completely separate telecommunications system cut off from the global internet’s infrastructure. Known as the BRICS Cable, it will connect the five countries with each other by a 34,000-kilometer long underwater fiber optic cable and could easily be used to construct its own independent internet between the countries involved.
And then there are even more stable democracies looking into their own intranets. In 2014, the European Union and Brazil announced plans to lay a $185 million undersea fiber-optic communications cable between them, effectively laying the groundwork for a new bilateral internet if they so choose. What’s more, that year German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who many now see as the de facto leader of the free world, called for the European Union’s 28 member states (soon to be 27 after Brexit) to create its own region internet tied to the political bloc. This internet would be separate and completely walled off from the world wide web.
“We’ll talk to France about how we can maintain a high level of data protection,” Merkel said, announcing the plan. “Above all, we’ll talk about European providers that offer security for our citizens, so that one shouldn’t have to send e-mails and other information across the Atlantic.”
HOW THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY BECAME THE WORLD’S BATTLEGROUND
But why are so many countries–including liberal democracies like the EU nations–suddenly so keen on developing their own national or bloc-wide internets? It’s a complicated, multi-faceted answer, but one of the primary factors is national security concerns. In general, those fears don’t stem from, say, the EU’s worries about increased spying or cyber attacks from China–though that is cause for concern. Rather, they grow from the EU’s fears (as well as Brazil and Russia) of the large-scale American cyber-espionage Edward Snowden revealed in 2013.
In that year, Snowden revealed just how readily U.S. intelligence agencies were siphoning up data across the globe—data on everything from foreign governments to commercial institutions to foreign nationals. Among the many reasons it was so easy for the U.S. to pull this off was because all this data was connected and accessible on the same global internet, one which had a large part of its infrastructure made or maintained by U.S. companies, and one in which a large majority of that infrastructure was physically located in America. The year after Snowden’s bombshell revelation, the German chancellor began her discussions for building an EU-wide internet sequestered from the world wide web and its foreign spooks.
There have been other factors, as well, fueling the idea of nationalized internets as safe havens. As every industry from banking to healthcare to transportation to defense moves online, the internet has become an attractive battleground for governments and dictators to launch cyber attacks on their enemies through the worldwide web. It’s now completely feasible that a country like Russia could take down the power grid in the northeastern U.S. to cause chaos and disruption, just as the country did in 2015 with the hack of Ukraine’s electrical grid. Russia was able to do this remotely because the computers that managed the grid–like every other electrical grid–were connected to the web.
And as we witnessed with the 2016 elections, there’s a lot more than physical infrastructure that the global web leaves vulnerable to remote attack. The global internet means bad actors can easily spread propaganda to all of a foreign nation’s citizens without ever stepping foot in that country. In this way, the very foundations of democracy can be easily manipulated and misinformation spread like a virus due to the ease with which information spreads online.
Again, all of this is possible because the world is connected by one global internet anyone can access. And things are set to only get worse. While right now most countries are pretty much on an even keel in regards to being able to launch or fight cyber attacks online, what keeps national security experts awake at night is the concern about which country will become the leader in highly advanced artificial intelligence or quantum computing first. In a worst-case scenario, whichever one does could have the power to easily overcome any other nation’s contemporary cybersecurity protections–even today’s most advanced encryption. This would leave virtually every industry in every other country open to large-scale attacks they would have little ways of fending off.
One of the few ways to attempt to block attacks from the sole AI or quantum computing superpower would be to completely sever a nation’s internet from the global web. After all, if a country’s economic or defense or transportation infrastructure wasn’t on the same internet as the foreign superpower, it would be infinitely harder for that more advanced security threat to access the proverbial pipes it needs to carry out its attacks.
RISING NATIONALISM AND PROTECTIONISM LEADS THE WAY
Of course, a democratic country severing its connection to the global web in favor of a national intranet would need public support. But that approval might not be hard to win, however, if governments can convince enough people that a national intranet is vital for national defense and security. This would be especially true in the wake of a large-scale cyber attack on a country’s vital infrastructure when public opinion almost always favors self-preservation.
“Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, at the Aspen Security Conference warned Americans about the possibility of a ‘cyber 9/11,’” Jeremy Haft, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the author of Unmade in China: The Hidden Truth About China’s Economic Miracle, told me. “Coats provided some examples of what this might be, such as the shutting down of Wall Street for a week or the attack on a major U.S. bank. Other scenarios could include an attack on infrastructure, such as a nuclear power plant or water treatment facility. Should a cyber 9/11 occur, that would likely trigger a hardening of our cyber defenses, which could include erecting a giant firewall or several regional firewalls to try to prevent future attacks.”
The increasing trade protectionism of America’s current administration could also jump from physical barriers to digital ones, again pitched to the public as a national security measure. After all, if a president can argue that importing steel from Canada to the U.S. is a national security risk, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the open web is costing American companies tens of billions of dollars a year in cyber theft–arguably a bigger security threat.
“The last decade has seen a sharp rise in corporate cyber-espionage as a means of acquiring intellectual property. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and even some of our allies carry out these persistent attacks. With hundreds of billions of dollars worth of America’s industrial secrets being siphoned away, most policymakers and business leaders see cyber theft as a dire national security threat,” says Haft. “Yet Congress, the Justice Department, and intelligence community have struggled to come up with an effective deterrent. Should these attacks continue to escalate in scale and magnitude, eventually, the building of national intranets to protect valuable intellectual property from piracy does not seem out of the realm of possibility.”
The last few years have seen a surge in nationalism across the globe, from the U.S. and Europe to the Philippines and Indonesia. It would be easy for foreign powers and autocratic leaders to frame the existing internet, with its dominance by U.S. tech companies, as an affront to national interest and digital sovereignty. Indeed, Iran made similar arguments when selling the idea of a halal net to its citizens.
Countries experiencing waves of nationalism could also argue the supposed economic benefits of building a national internet, arguing that it would allow them to grant or deny access by foreign companies to their online consumer base. After all, why should a country like, say, Brazil, give the American search giant Google easy access to its online users when Google–and not Brazilian companies–reap most of the financial rewards?
Such protectionism could then give those countries–especially the ones with a large middle-class online consumer base–increased leverage in trade deals. “You want your foreign company to have access to our internet and its users’ wallets? What do we get in return?”
That, in turn, could lead to the formation of digital access pacts, essentially trade deals granting one country access to another country’s national intranet and its users. This kind of access would make for powerful economic and geopolitical tools one country could leverage against another the way contemporary trade deals and tariffs are wielded to exert non-military influence over a foreign country.
ERECTING DIGITAL WALLS
But just how hard would it be for a country to sever itself from the global web and build its own national internet? I put that question to Kevin Whelan, the chief technology officer of ITC Secure, one of Europe’s leading cybersecurity firms.
While many developing nations would have a hard time building the infrastructure to cut themselves off from the global internet, Whelan says that for a G7 or Five Eyes country, the difficulty and cost would be “trivial.”
“A handful of internet exchanges in each country, performance routing equipment is already there to apply filtering policy,” says Whelan. “Implementing a ‘great firewall’ [for a G7 country] could be done in less than three months. All is required is a ‘national emergency’ and the state actor to apply some force majeure. If Turkey can do it, anyone can.”
If a few countries were willing to raise digital walls around its own internet, would more follow suit? It’s possible, depending on the country, says Whelan. “Once a G7/Five Eyes power goes down this path, it will provide legitimacy and cover for every other tinpot state globally to do the same.”
THE DEATH OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB?
Yet the chances of such a dystopian future are far from certain. While Whelan and other cyber security and trade experts I interviewed concede that a small-scale fracturing of the current internet is possible and–as Iran, Germany, and Brazil’s plans show–is already happening, a full-scale splinternet is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The main defense against the hypothetical 2028 scenario I described earlier is an economic one–at least when it comes to America shutting its doors to the global web, says Professor Rajneesh Narula, the John H. Dunning Chair of International Business at Henley Business School.
“America’s bargaining power vis-a-vis such unilateral actions has declined considerably over the last 50 years. This is because there are multiple economic poles of strength, and as the U.S. becomes more inward looking it is pushing others to discover that when America sneezes the rest of the world no longer catches a cold–although some may also sneeze,” says Narula.
Yet he does concede parts of America’s internet may splinter off from the rest of the global web. “I think there will be two levels to this trend–one level that will be a world wide web for e-commerce, while sensitive matters will roll into regional webs–it is already happening,” says Narula. “Can this be used for leverage by the U.S.? Only to a point, because the large U.S. [technology] firms will resist this vehemently. I doubt very much if this will work without their active support, which a Trump-like president almost certainly will not get, but there will be a move towards this bifurcation.”
Haft agrees the economic repercussions would stop most capitalist liberal democracies from amputating themselves from the global web. “It would have a crippling impact on cross-border trade. Most of the products we consume today are manufactured through supply chains that span many countries. These supply chains run on an IT backbone, which facilitates the flow of communication, collaboration, and commerce. Erecting national intranets would disrupt these systems, impeding the flow of global trade. Millions of American jobs would be imperiled.”
Yet still, a nagging fear persists. When rising nationalism and protectionism take hold of countries, when populist then-presidential contenders openly talk about closing off the internet, when history shows that in populist eras “sticking it” to a foreign power can be more important than the economic realities of the situation, and when even historic alleys want to make themselves digitally sovereign from U.S. technology, could rational reasons be enough to maintain the status quo?
Narula is optimistic. “Economics always wins over nationalism.”
Let’s hope he’s right.