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Ideas & Debate

Fear of domination may split internet

 internet
Whether internet is splintered or not, not every content found online is good for everyone. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In December 2012, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) hosted a meeting in Dubai to discuss issues related to internet governance. More than 1,500 delegates from around the world attended, including from national governments, industry, and civil society and advocacy organisations.

At the time, a number of countries wanted to limit the global regulatory powers of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the company licensed by the US Department of Commerce to co-ordinate technical aspects of the internet, like the Domain Name System and Internet Protocol addresses. Most of the countries wanted the ITU to take over Internet governance.

In addition, the countries wanted to create means of taxing over the top (OTTs) companies like Google for sending data into their territory, as well as means of dealing with authoritarian regimes that have an appetite for controlling the internet. Other countries wanted the sovereign right "to regulate the national internet segment." The US put up a strong fight to push back the demands for ITU to take control of the internet. Since then, there have been other initiatives, notably by Brazil, Russia, India and China often referred to as the BRIC nations, to have an independent Internet. Although the BRIC proposal was mooted in 2013 by five of the fastest-growing economic nations as a strategy to stop the US from spying on them, they have not managed to succeed. Now trade between the US and some of the BRIC nations may succeed to split internet where many have failed before.

In 2017, a Chinese social media company, Musical.ly (a video-based social network popular with teenagers in the Western World) was sold to Bytedance, the company that controls the Chinese news aggregator Toutiao for approximately $1 billion.

Within a few months, Bytedance merged its new acquisition, Musical.ly with its own service TikTok (creates and shares short lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos) to create one of the fastest growing social media app. It is doing better than Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

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This however, did not go down well with the US administration. At the beginning of November this year, the US put TikTok under National Security Review. The US administration fears that the viral app may expose American youth to communism.

Other analysts have warned that TikTok is Chinese Cambridge Analytica data bomb waiting to explode. Further, they argue that whilst China denies foreign companies from competing in their market, they have an unfair advantage given that their technologies are thriving around the world. Such a trend, the US says, is a threat to national security and the economy. The altercation may split the Internet along the US and China interests in technology. On their part, TikTok has decided to split internet in such a way that they provide for each country according to their data privacy policy. In other words, they do not have a common privacy policy. For example, their European Union customers will have a right to access their data in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in that jurisdiction and those in the US will not. This practice is known as splinternet.

Splinternet or cyberbalkernisation is dividing of the internet as a result of what the Economist refers to, “technology, commerce, politics, nationalism, religion, and interests.” The magazine notes that "Powerful forces are threatening to balkanise it," and it may soon splinter along geographic and commercial boundaries.

The idea of splitting the internet is not farfetched any more as concerns of privacy and the fear that advancement of other ideologies into young people’s minds elsewhere could ferment revolutions, and perhaps precipitate a splintered Internet. Several countries are building cyber walls to protect their citizens from psychological profiling to achieve selfish ends. As it is, we already do not know if such profiling isn’t happening from several countries that have no capacity to review the kind of content or social media sites their children are watching or using online. We live in a difficult period that some of the conveniences we enjoy like the internet may turn out to haunt our future.

Whether internet is splintered or not, not every content found online is good for everyone. We perhaps need to limit some online content, especially to children.

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