How anti-NSA backlash could fracture the Internet along national borders

November 1, 2013

German newspapers cover revelations that the NSA had eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In a book released earlier this year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former State Department official Jared Cohen predicted that the Internet could gradually fracture into several regional- or country-level mini-Internets. We may be seeing some surprisingly early hints of that process -- but not in the part of the world where Schmidt predicted it would occur.

The Internet could break into pieces, Schmidt and Cohen warned, under pressure from authoritarian states such as Iran and China, which are working to control online discussion and limit the free exchange of ideas and news online. Under this scenario, the Great Firewall of China, which separates China's Web from the rest of the world's, could be just the beginning of a gradual process of separation. These authoritarian states also tend to be frequent sources of hacking and cyber-espionage, which could exacerbate the Internet's fracturing by leading democratic countries to wall themselves off from the threats. It would be the authoritarian Web or Webs breaking apart from the free, democratic Internet.

This week saw some signs that the fractured-Internet theory might be coming true, perhaps sooner than Schmidt and Cohen anticipated, but along very different fault lines. A group of German telecoms have proposed that the country develop its own, separate Web and e-mail systems, to wall themselves off from the U.S. cyber-snooping that has sparked such outrage there. While the plan doesn't appear likely to be carried out anytime soon, the mere fact that it's being discussed so widely and seriously is an indication that the Web could indeed break apart.

The Post's Michael Birnbaum explains that the German proposal wouldn't result in a separate Internet, exactly, but it would be a step in that direction -- and it's not just under discussion in Germany.

The efforts to nationalize Internet traffic go beyond Germany. In Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff was also allegedly monitored by the NSA, the government has pushed to require U.S. companies to store data about Brazilian customers inside Brazil. European Union leaders have advocated that their 28 nations develop “cloud” data storage that is independent from the United States.

It's ironic that these Web fault lines would surface among liberal democracies, rather than just between those democracies and authoritarian states, as Schmidt and Cohen predicted. And, surely, some of this is political, with leaders in Brazil and Germany looking to get out ahead of public outrage against U.S. cyber-monitoring programs. Still, politics does drive policies. While it's unlikely that Web consumers in these countries would really be willing to shut themselves off from popular U.S. Web services like Google and Facebook, they are showing much greater interest in limiting the global nature of those services, forcing them to create separate systems within each country and to work under different rules and restrictions. India, potentially the world's second-largest Internet market behind China, has already begun to do this.

And that's how the fragmentation of the Web could begin. Even if it never leads the Internet to splinter off into fully separated pieces, it does reverse the now 20-year process of decentralizing and globalizing the Internet, which is arguably the most trans-national economic and political network in human history. That's been an enormous boon for U.S.-based Web companies, which are globally dominant, as well as for  highly advanced American cyber-espionage efforts. (That's a big part of why the United States is the world's leading advocate of a globally open Internet.) But it's also made it harder for other countries to control how they interact with the Web. As citizens in these countries push for greater Web sovereignty, that will naturally mean erecting cyber borders to limit the flow of data.

The Web's global nature has greatly benefited the spread of commerce and ideas -- exactly why authoritarian states want to carve themselves off from it -- but it has also weakened national borders in ways that many democracies really don't like. It's easy for Chinese hackers to break into Western companies' Web sites and steal their secrets, and in the same way it's easier for U.S. spy agencies to poke into networks around the globe. If people in countries such as Germany and Brazil conclude that the borderless nature of the Internet has more costs than benefits, then the Internet could start fracturing even earlier than Schmidt anticipated.

Update: Hayes Brown of Think Progress wrote previously on the potential for NSA backlash to lead to a "Balkanization" of the Web, which he explains could spark "a resurgence of initiatives that seek to put more control of the Internet into the hands of governments rather than keeping it free and open." Sascha Meinrath of the New American Foundation warned Brown, "Netizens would fall under a complex array of different jurisdictions imposing conflicting mandates and conferring conflicting rights."

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Max Fisher · November 1, 2013