Avoiding Internet Fragmentation
Technical challenges of Internet fragmentation
Speaker 1: Olaf Kolkman, Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 2: Robert Pepper, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 3: Izumi Aizu, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 4: Lorrayne Porciuncula, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Speaker 5: Sheetal Kumar, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
French Ambassador for Digital Affairs, Henri Verdier, and Raul Echeberría, Executive Director of the Latin American Internet Association (ALAI).
Emily Taylor, Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Georgia Osborn, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Carolina Caeiro, Private Sector, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Round Table - 90 Min
Risks of Internet Fragmentation. What are concrete risks associated with the splintering of the Internet if existing fragmentation trends do not ease or course-correct? What specific trends do we see at the level of network development, government regulation and digital divides, and how do these contribute to fragmentation? Vision and required action for a non-fragmented Internet. Ahead of the WSIS+20 review, what is the vision of the IGF community for the Internet of tomorrow and its continued role as a global network? What can the multiple stakeholders that participate in this space contribute to avert fragmentation trends?
What will participants gain from attending this session? As part of this roundtable discussion, participants will have an opportunity to join a lively conversation about how the IGF community expects the Internet to evolve over the next 20 years, and what concrete opportunities exist for realising that vision. The session is also expected to provide an overview of potential risks associated with the splintering of the Internet, and contribute to raising awareness about the perils of fragmentation and the need for collective action. Outputs of the workshop are expected to influence parallel and ongoing discussions throughout the week on the various facets of Internet fragmentation, and what the IGF community is able to contribute in the shaping of the Internet of tomorrow.
Ahead of the WSIS+20 review, this workshop will consist of a forward looking exercise to discuss with the IGF community what we hope the Internet will look like in 20 years and actions needed today to avoid the fragmentation of the Internet of tomorrow. The organisers have put together a brief document describing three potential scenarios: (i) a fragmented Internet, (ii) the continuation of the current status quo, and (iii) a strengthened global Internet (https://dnsrf.org/blog/the-internet-in-20-years-time-what-we-should-have-done-differently/index.html). The scenarios put forth in the document will serve as the basis to kickstart the conversation among speakers and participants. The session will open with an exchange about why it matters to prevent fragmentation, and consider what a “worst case scenario” might look like should existing fragmentation trends not ease or course-correct. The session will then consider desired scenarios for the Internet of tomorrow against the current status quo, and invite speakers and participants to reflect on concrete actions the multistakeholder, Internet governance community should take to avoid internet fragmentation and its potential negative impacts. The session will consider three dimensions: (a) technical evolution of the internet architecture and needs of emerging technologies, (b) government regulation, particularly around data governance, and (c) digital divides emanating from varying experiences both around connectivity and exercise of rights online.
The session is intended to serve as an innovative space for collective thinking and conversation on how the Internet should evolve over the next two decades, and strategies for avoiding fragmentation. The discussion is expected to hone in on the identification of fragmentation trends related to the evolving nature of the Internet’s architectural core, government regulation and the persistence of digital divides. This analysis will draw from and feed into the existing existing work of the Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation, and organisations such as the Internet Society that work on preventing fragmentation. The session is also expected to contribute to the identification of concrete actions that the multiple stakeholders of the IGF community can put forth to evolve the Internet in ways that best serve humanity ahead of the WSIS+20 review. Co-organizers will work with speakers and interested session participants in authoring a piece on main takeaways from thediscussion.
Hybrid Format: The roundtable discussion will begin with a series of fire-starter remarks by both in-person and online speakers. This is expected to generate a dynamic of open interaction between onsite and online participants. The session will be advertised among relevant audiences participating in IGF to ensure the involvement of a diverse stakeholder groups and regions. The moderator will be provided with a list of confirmed participants –online and in-person– to invite individual contributions from those who are not on the speaker roaster. The first segment of the discussion will hash out potential risks of a fragmented Internet, and desired scenarios for the future of the Internet. The roundtable will then open up to all participants for additional views on desired scenarios for the Internet of tomorrow and a conversation about concrete actions to realise that vision. The moderator may use of interactive tools to engage participants such as opinion polls.
There is a level of Internet Fragmentation today, which manifests at a technical, regulatory and political level. There is a chance, however, to act upon present and future fragmentation and design the future Internet we want. We should consider incentives (where economics has played a central role), think how to find convergence, design a future Internet for people, and be ready for this debate to be impacted by geopolitics and climate crisis.
To get to a best case, future scenario, we should take an incremental, interactive approach to devising solutions (including regulation); our actions should have a compass and be principles-based (openness and permissionless innovation emerged as central guiding principles); strive for inclusivity in governance and standards, take guidance from human rights frameworks and engage actively in difficult areas where there is tension or “chaos.”
This workshop proposed to discuss Intern Fragmentation through a forward looking exercise. The session opened with the moderator inviting the panel and audience to think of the Internet in 2043, what good would look like, and what it would take us to fulfil the hoped-for future we want.
The panellists started off by sharing their thoughts on what it entails imagining the future, based on past experience.
Olaf Kolkman from the Internet Society highlighted it is hard to predict the future and what technologies would triumph, exemplifying with his erroneous prediction that webpages would not go beyond academic libraries. Sheetal Kumar from Global Partners Digital spoke about ubiquity of smartphones and connectivity as a crucial development and in looking to the future, encouraged the audience to think about what we want the Internet to feel like; she believes the internet will continue to grown in embeddedness and finds that how the internet will evolve will depend on what we Internet we choose to create. French Ambassador for Digital Affairs, Henri Verdier —who created his first web-based company in the 90s— shared a story about how he erroneously predicted that Wikipedia would fail to take off. Professor Izumi Aizu from Tama University mentioned that we are oftentimes overly optimistic of the future, which in reality may be composed of different shades and colours. The future is bound to surprise us with unpredictable events like Fukushima or the unfolding conflict in Gaza. Lorraine Porciuncula from the Datasphere Initiative spoke of being a digital native, and the optimism felt during the Arab spring. She recalled the sense of opportunity and “capability” brought by technology. Time showed that there are good and bad aspects to technology, yet she encouraged the audience to reconnect with a sense of optimism.
The moderator introduced the discussion paper submitted as part of the session (https://dnsrf.org/blog/the-internet-in-20-years-time-what-we-should-hav…) which lays out there potential future scenarios:
- Scenario 1: Continued Status Quo. In the first scenario, we muddled along, continue the current course of action and end up with an internet that continues in its present trajectory with some signs of fragmentation;
- Scenario 2: Fully Fragmented Internet. the second scenario is one of complete fragmentation, either divided at the technical layers, at ideological layers or regulatory layers or all three;
- Scenario 3: Strengthened, non-fragmented Internet. The third scenario is one of a bright future where we get our act together.
The moderator invited the panel and audience to comment on what they see as the most likely future and why, and at what layer they see the most risk.
Olaf said that in reading the scenarios, he was struck about how the future is already here. Many of the things described in the scenarios —such as drivers for the fragmentation of the technical layers of the Internet, are already happening, and if they take off, they will splinter the internet. He explained that the value he sees in the Internet lies in its openness, the scientific method of sharing knowledge, and to be able to probe, query and scrutinise one another. He commented in particular on scenario 1, where we see a mix of closed networks coexisting with the Internet. This is about being proprietary, about the Internet being closed, about the Internet developing services that people pay for, where people connect to servers to access specific services, and the interconnectivity is less important. This is an entirely different notion from the Internet that exists to connect us to the rest of the world, where we get to choose services. To Olaf, openness is a best case scenario, where the richness of the Internet really lies.
The moderator took a round of early comments from the audience.
- Barry Leiba said that what has driven the evolution of the Internet is the innovation in applications and services. He therefore thinks that a great idea for an application (perhaps yet to come) is what will drive the Internet of tomorrow, including another set of standards and technologies. He highlighted the role of standards in shaping the way we will experience technology.
- Andrew Campling stated that we are also at an inflection point. Up to now, the Internet was seen as a force for good. He finds we are now at the point where the balance is shifting to the Internet becoming a source for harm with the rise of disinformation and CSAM. Adding to the point of standards, he urged for standards development organisations (SDOs) to become more diverse.
- Michael Nelson from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace came in next. He taught a class about the internet future(s), where he highlighted to his students that the best way to understand what is coming in terms of technology, is not to understand what the technology can do, or what governments want it to not do, but rather to look at what the users want. So we should ask ourselves, what will drive companies and governments to do better? He concluded by saying “I am a technology positivist but political negativist.”
The moderator returned to the panellists. Izumi described the first scenarios of mixed networks co-existing with the Internet as a scenario of chaos. He consulted a number of AI tools on the subject of the panel and shared the findings with the audience. Chat GPT said that, while there is fragmentation due to economic and political reasons, the ethos of the Internet as a tool for global communication will likely persist. Bard was even more optimistic and said the Internet might become even more unified. He challenged the audience to think not of a better internet, not for the sake of the Internet itself, but for the sake of a better society, which is a different perspective on how to understand the Internet.
Lorraine, on the other hand, said that in her view, we will not have an issue of fragmentation around the Internet’s technical layers, but we will have a very concrete challenge on the regulatory side. This issue is reflective of not only the fragmentation of the Internet, but of the fragmentation of society. She urged the audience to consider “how are we (as societies) going to get along? What are the incentives?” Regulators will regulate what they are scared off: they want to control national security, democratic processes, content, and so on. So when taking of regulatory-driven fragmentation, the question becomes “How will we work to find convergence?”
Ambassador Verdier said that he is uncertain what scenario will materialise, but that he knows what we should fight for. We know what the Internet brought us in terms of possibilities. Now there is great centralisation, if you look for example at submarine cables. He finds that big tech does not care for decentralised internet, and that “we need to fight for that interconnected, free, decentralised internet.” He also reflected on John Perry Barlow’s notion of Cyberspace (https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence), where the Internet felt like it was somewhere far off in “cyberspace”. Now the digital is embedded in all aspects of life: education, health, and even war and peace. He finds that the fragmentation of the technical layer would be an extremely bad scenario, as now interdependence holds it all together. If the internet were to fully fragment, the temptation to disconnect each other’s internet would be very high, war would be waged on infrastructure itself. So far we have cyberwarfare, but no attempts to disconnect internets. Beyond the technical layer, there is a political and legal layer. From a legal point of view, he sees it would be better to have regulatory convergence but if you believe in democracy, you need to respect regulatory proposals that are reflective of local prerogatives, as is the case in France.
Sheetal came in next and said she finds that we have the capacity to build and design our own future, even though there are power asymmetries to be aware of. She picked up on the notion of how the Internet of the future should feel: it should feel liberating, especially to those who do not occupy those positions of power. She hopes for a future Internet that does not reflect the inequalities of our society. This will require that those who build the technologies and develop the standards, open up spaces to those communities affected by technology developments. In terms of what we should do, she highlighted “we know exactly what we need to do, we just don’t do it at the moment.” There are many useful tools and guidance on how to build a better, human-rights-respecting Internet. We should utilise and leverage those in shaping the Internet of tomorrow.
The audience came in with a new round of comments:
- Web 3 and money. Georgia Osborn picked up on money being a huge incentive on the Internet, and currently money being a massive driver for the development of blockchain technologies, Web 3.0, alternative naming systems, and cryptocurrencies. She asked the panel to reflect on whether those forces are bound to further fragment the Internet, or not.
- Interoperable laws. Steve del Bianco from NetChoice highlighted the impact of fragmentation through regulation, and stated that regulation is the main challenge we will confront, one that is already unfolding. There appears to be no cost associated or consequences for governments, particularly authoritarian governments that want to control what their citizens see. He highlighted how IGF 2023 was largely about AI, but not about collaboration. “We have been hearing competing views about how it should be regulated and where it needs to go. That is not going to work transnationally.” He encouraged the audience to think of ways of documenting the cost of fragmentation, and raising the “pain level” for bad regulatory proposals.
- Bertrand Le Chapelle from the Internet and Jurisdiction Network also spoke about legal interoperability. He said that fragmentation is not driven by technical objectives but by politics. The legal fragmentation is a reflection of the international political system, which today is heavily influenced by notions of national sovereignty. The legal fragmentation is what prevents us from dealing with online abuse in many cases. The framework for accessing electronic evidence is non-existing or insufficient. He agreed with Ambassador Verdier that countries have a “democratic freedom/capacity” to do what they deem right for their citizens, but if we want to preserve interoperability we need to reduce the friction at the legal level. He also thinks we need to have heterogeneous governance frameworks that allow the coexistence of government regulation, company’s self regulation, and other frameworks that operate independently yet are able to speak to and with one another.
- Involvement of the global south and regions with ideological disagreement. Nikki Colosso from Roadblocks came in next. She pointed out how a lot of conversation in IGF 2022 dealt with incorporating the global south and inclusivity. She asked the panel what specific steps companies and civil society can take to involve users from countries that are not represented in these conversations or those from countries where there are differences from a geopolitical perspective.
- Digital Colonialism. Jerel James picked up on the issue of profit as an incentive. Money is how power gets flexed on certain communities. He asked about digital colonialism and how it may be sanctioned. As we see antitrust regulation for monopolies exists in our traditional finance system, he asked whether there are possibilities to sanction resource extraction by big tech as a means to stop digital colonialism.
- Bad behaviour in the online realm. Jennifer Bramlet from the UN Security Council spoke next. She focuses on how bad actors exploit ICTs for terrorism, including use to recruit and radicalise individuals. They look at what is considered unlawful and harmful language across jurisdictions, from a regulatory perspective. Looking to the future, they are concerned about crime and terrorist activity in the metaverse, and how it may be tackled going forward when regulation hasn’t quite yet caught up with online criminal challenges we see today. Her question to the panel was how do you deal with bad behaviour in the online realm.
- Call not to lose sight of the social value of the Internet. Vittorio Bertola came next. He believes Europe is producing regulation precisely to preserve the global nature of the Internet, not to break it. Also, if the future of the internet is decided by what people want from it, people want entertainment and social media attention. If we focus on that we lose sight of the social purpose of the technology. Just doing things because we can or because money is not enough.
Ambassador Verdier responded first by saying he shares the aspiration by Bertrand of interoperable legislation. But while we can work on making progress in that direction, we are not there yet. France is fighting for regulation of big tech, which they see as a private place built on the internet. In his view, “you can do that and still protect the global internet.”
Sheetal elaborated on what we can do. On legal fragmentation, she expressed there is need for harmonisation. She finds we have human rights standards to guide us, we have the rule of law and our institutions. We can use those human rights standards and guidance for shaping the online space. She also seconded the need to protect the openness of the Internet and the ability to build your own apps and technology. She also supported the need to protect the critical properties of the internet, and how that comes hand in hand with the need to make standards bodies more inclusive. She also encouraged all participants to take the conversation home, to ensure that we are vocalising the values we want to be reflected on the Internet of tomorrow, and ensuring that those get executed. She concluded with an invitation: “Let's not be nostalgic, let’s look forward.” That requires giving users control, and not letting governments or companies determine what the future is about.
Izumi reacted to Vittorio and Bertrand. He agreed that the future of the Internet depends on the wills of people/users, and that it also depends on legal frameworks. He wanted to add additional dimensions to consider, two factors that are unknown: climate and politics. We may get together hosted by the UN in 20 years time, independently of how politics plays out, who wins what war. Climate change, however, is an existential threat, we may think it is an external factor to the internet, but may well shape the future of the Internet, it may even lead to war. In the 1940s, we killed each other a lot. We then had the Cold War, and then came the Internet. Perhaps the timing was right, as the East and West were open to coming closer together. That political will is what allowed the Internet to get picked up. China wanted to have technology and science, that is why China accepted the Internet, to have growth and innovation and technology. Now China and India have reached the point where they do not need the West anymore. He concluded by inviting us to think of not the Internet of the future. The question has to be how the present and future will offer something better for society.
Lorraine picked up on notions of what the Internet can do for people. She highlighted that narratives matter, so it is not about the Internet, but about the digital society. Now, when we reflect on ”what is our vision for the Internet? what do we want the Internet to feel like?” she finds that we do not have a clear, shared vision. If the issue were walled gardens, we could use tools for antitrust and competition for users to move to other platforms. But the truth is that with the Internet, one government can’t fix it all, so it’s all about governance. We need to focus on asking ourselves “how do we cooperate? how do we govern? What are our economic and social objectives?”
Olaf concluded by explaining that not having infrastructure at all is the ultimate fragmentation. Empowered communities is the way forward, like IXPs, communities networks, that is truly bottom. He also added thoughts on standardisation. When you talk about economics and standardisation, standardisation is to a large extent industry driven and industry politics; we need to put that on the table and understand it. With economics, consolidation happens, even if you have open technologies, companies will try to extract money from using those open technologies. And you will have an accumulation of power to the point governments might say this is too much, and want to regulate it. But we need to remember you don’t need standards for every innovation. The founder of blockchain did permissionless innovation, open innovation (he did not innovate via standards making bodies). Innovation happens today, not just in standards organisations. If you ask me from a technical perspective, where to go in the future I say: Open architecture, so that people build on the work of others, open code so that it can be reused, and open standards.
There was a last round of comments from the audience:
- Yug Desai, ISOC Youth Ambassador, thinks in 20 years from now we will have fragmentation, not by design, but by default due capacity gaps. He finds the standards are unable to keep up with the pace of innovation, and not sufficiently inclusive of the users.
- Mark Dattysgeld highlighted the importance of open source and the role of research driving AI. He said we should ask ourselves whether that is the new paradigm that takes things forward. This point was reinforced by Lucien Taylor on the example of TCP/IP.
The session wrapped with final recommendations from the panel about what to do next:
Raul Echeberria from ALAI finds we already have a level of internet fragmentation, and we need to live with that. The incentives of policy makers are diverse, and not always driven by the search for the best outcomes for all. Our mission has to be protecting the Internet. In terms of what to do, his proposal is to go for “gradual objectives and commitments, instead of going for the whole packet.” In sum, he suggests an incremental approach. He also said that in speaking to policy-makers, we need to make our messages sharper and clearer, and better outline what governments should not do. Lastly, he shared he recently participated in a discussion with parliamentarians, all of whom were over 50 years old. They spoke about fears, but it is important we do not develop policies based on fear, and let’s not let fear stop evolution.
Lorraine reiterated the points we heard so far – being clear on what the objectives are, being incremental– and added being iterative. There is no ultimate regulation that will get it right, so we need to test stuff and iterate. The system is hard to predict and it moves fast. We need processes and institutions that are more agile. Like in software development, we need to identify the bug, and have multi-stakeholder conversations to address them. True multi-stakeholderism works when it seeks to be inclusive in an intentional way, particularly of communities that are underrepresented.
Ambassador Verdier added he thinks we can agree on a compass. In his view, we should stand for 3 aspects of the Internet’s golden age: unprecedented openness and access to information, which to date has not been fully accomplished as we still have a digital divide; unprecedented empowerment of communities and people; and permissionless innovation. He reiterated that fragmentation can come from the private sector, not just rogue states.
Olaf emphasised the point of the compass, saying our work needs to be principles-based. We need to make a differentiation between evolution OF the internet and evolution ON the Internet. We can get to those shared principles if we talk of the evolution OF the Internet. When we talk about empowerment, individualism, autonomy ON the Internet it gets more complicated to arrive at shared principles.
Sheetal added we need to assess how governments do regulation, and how companies operate from a human rights perspective. Are they human rights respecting, is there accountability, transparency? Are our governance and standards body inclusive? She summarised her points as protecting critical properties as they evolve, adopting a principles based approach, building on the human rights framework, and creating more inclusive spaces.
Lastly, Izumi highlighted that there were no Chinese or Indian representatives in the high-level session on AI, which to him is telling of the level of fragmentation that already exists. It wasn’t like that 18 years ago, we have fears. He encouraged the audience to go out into the world of chaos, to engage where there is tension, to think outside the box.