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What is the “splinternet”?

The internet is at risk of breaking up into national and regional networks


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.