The Future of the Internet: Balkanization and Borders

The misbehavior of America's National Security Agency has made other countries want to wrest stewardship of the web away from us.

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Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff recently took to the podium at the UN’s General Assembly to call on other countries to disconnect from U.S. Internet hegemony and develop their own sovereign Internet and governance structures. Rousseff’s plan to create walled-off, national Intranets followed reports that the United States has been surveilling Rousseff’s email, intercepting internal government communications, and spying on the country’s national oil company, so it was somewhat understandable. But her move could lead to a powerful backlash against an open Internet – one that would transform it from a global commons to a fractured patchwork severely limited by the political boundaries on a map.

Brazil is one of a handful of countries that includes Indonesia, Turkey, and India who have been on the fence in the last decade’s debate over whether to develop an international framework to govern the Internet — one that would replace the role that the United States has played as chief Internet steward. Traditionally, that debate has featured America in the role as champion of a free and open Internet, one that guarantees the right of all people to freely express themselves. Arguing against that ideal: repressive regimes which have sought to limit connectivity and access to information. But the NSA’s actions have shifted that debate, alienating key Internet Freedom allies and emboldening some of the most repressive regimes on the planet.  What is emerging is a coalition between countries that object to how the United States is going about upholding its avowed principles for a free Internet, and countries that have objected to those avowed principles all along.

(MORE: The World’s Emerging Democracies Don’t Like Us Now Either)

Our close allies in the European Union, for instance, are now considering revoking data-sharing agreements with the United States and requiring American web site providers to prominently warn Europeans that their data is subject to U.S. government surveillance. Meanwhile, repressive regimes like Iran, Syria, and China are wresting control of information over their networks, poisoning popular applications and services, and undermining the foundations for the Internet’s open, interconnected structure.

The motivations of those nations questioning America’s de facto control over the global Internet may vary, but their responses are all pointing in the same troubling direction: towards a Balkanized Internet. Should this happen, the Internet is in danger of becoming like the European train system, where varying voltage and 20 different types of signaling technologies force operators to stop and switch systems or even to another locomotive, resulting in delays, inefficiencies, and higher costs. Netizens would fall under a complex array of different legal requirements imposing conflicting mandates and conferring mutually exclusive rights.  And much like different signaling hampers the movement of people and the trade of physical goods, an Internet within such a complex jurisdictional structure would certainly hamper modern economic activity.

The NSA has also opened a Pandora’s box by treating “citizens” and “foreigners” differently (even defining both groups in myriad different ways). U.S. rules also impose geo-locational-based jurisdictional mandates (based upon the route of your Internet traffic or the location of the data services and databases you use). Already, a German citizen accessing a New York City data center via a Chinese fiber line may find their data covered by an array of conflicting legal requirements requiring privacy and active surveillance at the same time.

Fracturing the Internet undermines Internet freedom as well. The basic principle at the heart of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — protecting the right to freedom of opinion, expression, and the opportunity to participate in the information society — is at risk. Brazil may not be pressing to assert control over everything online or censor its own people, or spy on them, but plenty of other countries with darker motives are cheering Brazil on.

(MORE: Dianne Feinstein and the Fate of NSA Reform)

Even before all the recent revelations of NSA misbehavior, the United States was already facing calls for a more “democratic” global system of Internet regulation that gave other countries more say in setting rules.  Now, for the sake of a free Internet, it is imperative for Washington to move fast to restore a belief that America is a trustworthy Internet steward and defender of human rights online. We need is bold reforms from Washington — we need to curtail our unhealthy addiction to surveillance and covert hacking.  Only by being radically transparent about the scope of current activities and ceasing activities that transgress national norms will we regain global trust and shift the rather bleak trajectory we are currently on.

Sascha Meinrath is the director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, and was named to the TIME Tech 40 in 2013. This piece was adapted from a longer version that appeared on The Weekly Wonk. The views expressed are solely his own.