THE word—and the concept—is not new. An entire book has been written about it. But it is likely to find greater currency in the coming years: “splinternet”, or the idea that the internet, long imagined as a global online commons, is becoming a maze of national or regional and often conflicting rules. Elders of the internet—among them politicians, entrepreneurs and technologists who want the network to remain open—have started to push back. On November 14th like-minded souls gathered in Paris for the first international conference dedicated to finding ways for countries to co-ordinate internet policies.
Early internet thinkers, such as John Perry Barlow, hoped that cyberspace would take power away from nation-states, those “weary giants of flesh and steel”. But the internet has long since ceased to be a playground for geeks. As it becomes increasingly important to the running of the modern world, governments are trying to regain lost territory online. They can do this because “cloud computing”, the delivery of all kinds of digital services online, for instance, doesn’t happen somewhere in the sky, but in big data centres which have to be based on somebody’s sovereign territory. As a result, governments, especially those of big countries, can often force companies to comply with national laws and regulations.
This has triggered what Internet & Jurisdiction, the think-tank that organised the conference, calls a “legal arms race”. Since 2012 it has documented more than 1,000 cases of jurisdictional problems online created by governments and courts. Scarcely a day passes without another case. A few weeks ago it emerged that German prosecutors are investigating Facebook executives, including founder Mark Zuckerberg, over allegations that the firm is not doing enough to limit hate speech on its platform. On December 2nd France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État, will hear an appeal brought against a decision by the country’s data-protection authority, CNIL. It wants Google to comply with Europe’s “right to be forgotten”, which compels the search firm to hide links to information about people if they have requested them to be removed, not only within the European Union, but worldwide. Russia recently blocked LinkedIn for failing to comply with a rule that requires all internet firms to store data within Russian territory.
If nothing is done, many who met in Paris worried, the open internet could be a thing of the past within a decade or two. What is needed, they said, is more international co-operation—but not of the old kind. Creating an intergovernmental “World Internet Organisation”, for instance, would take decades. Nor would it be desirable: putting governments in charge is unlikely to produce decisions acceptable to the engineers and internet-address registrars who run the internet—or to those who seek to defend political freedom. More promising would be to replicate a model that has worked well in the governance of the internet itself: create a constellation of “multi-stakeholder” organisations, in which all with an interest in a given issue have a say. But finding consensus on legal and political matters is much more difficult than on technical problems, where one solution often is clearly better than another.