Viewpoints

Balkanization and globalization: the battle for freedom in the internet

Kevin Townsend, 20 February 2020

Nationalism is fueling the isolation of the internet

The internet stands alone among technological advances as the single biggest factor in unifying the globe. No other invention has allowed people to communicate on such a scale and with such flexibility as the world wide web, and everything from trade to romance to politics have undergone an online revolution. However, with rising nationalism in many countries, fears over privacy and safety, and increasing geopolitical tensions, many nations are beginning to isolate their internet, eroding the open, global nature of the web.

Balkanization

Internet Balkanization is the isolation of a nation’s local internet from the global world wide web. The World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risks Report 2020 calls it “fragmentation” and considers the process a major threat to the global economy.

Balkanization is rarely total; there are very few countries with an entirely segregated internet. It is usually achieved through government control of the internet access points (that is, ISPs for users and national ingress/egress points for traffic in general). Control at the internet service provider (ISP) level allows governments to dictate the extent (allowed and forbidden websites) that citizens can access both the local and global internet.

The motivation for balkanization is usually national control. In less extreme examples, it can protect citizens from harmful content. However, where national isolation is strong, the result is to bolster the power of the state and protect the government from dissent. Balkanization can also result from legal pressures; for example, where online content that may be legal in some countries is illegal in the home country. Economic pressures from private and corporate interests also play a part. 

To examine the variety of forms and causes of online balkanization, we can examine how it has been implemented in different countries.

Russia

Russia has had some degree of balkanization for many years, but has recently explored complete segregation of the Russian national internet – known as RuNet – from the global network. The sovereign internet law of 2019 has given the state unprecedented power to enforce online isolation. The process is simple in concept: a separate Russia-only DNS. 

DNS governs internet routing. A Russia-only DNS means that Russian users cannot access the global internet, while foreign users cannot access Russian users or websites. The theory is the Russian government can switch from the global DNS to the Russia-only DNS in times of international crisis. However, the most likely motivation for Russia’s balkanization is to consolidate state power and reduce foreign influence.

Iran

Iran’s internet has been significantly isolated for some time, and online filtering in Iran is labelled as ‘pervasive’ by the OpenNet Initiative. Following protests over rising fuel costs towards the end of 2019, Iran saw a week-long internet blackout. This was followed by revelations of a letter to various organizations and businesses, asking which internet services were considered indispensable. The letter fueled speculation that Iran is planning even further balkanization, potentially providing state-controlled versions of vital services with a whitelist of all permitted websites instead of a blacklist of forbidden ones. 

Whitelist-based censorship is more difficult to circumvent than blacklists because it’s unlikely that any government would permit any service which would allow for users to circumvent the balkanization. Iran’s balkanization is most likely motivated by cultural isolation; an effort to reduce cultural influence from other nations.

North Korea

Notorious for its heavy levels of censorship in all forms of media, North Korea has perhaps the strongest and most long-standing online balkanization of any country. Even basic internet access is whitelist-restricted: only explicitly authorized citizens are permitted to connect to the national intranet, let alone the global internet. 

It’s also impossible for most foreign citizens to access the North Korean intranet. North Korea has only a single ISP and the national internet is estimated to have fewer than 5,500 websites in total. The only two routes to the global internet are via Russia and China.

Only government officials can access the global internet from within North Korea. This allows the state to keep close control over all information presented to its citizens.

China

The Chinese internet may be less insular than North Korea’s, but China’s power and population gives it special significance. A global split between predominantly American internet and predominantly Chinese internet has been predicted for several years, and seems to be growing more likely. 

The Chinese internet is more centralized than the global internet, with smartphone apps already having almost replaced cash as a method for day-to-day payments. The trade-off for this is that the Chinese internet’s level of balkanization is as good as total. 

The Great Firewall of China

The Great Firewall of China is both a technological and legislative construct to control the population’s internet usage. The Firewall blocks access to certain websites of the global internet, including Google, Twitter, Facebook and various mobile apps. For Chinese citizens to be able to access a site, they must abide by Chinese legal restrictions, which has led to many global organizations creating separate versions of their websites and services specifically for the Chinese market.

The Great Firewall affects users who are connected to Chinese servers and IP addresses, so it is possible to circumvent the Great Firewall with data roaming and careful VPN usage. However, Chinese authorities have been growing significantly less tolerant of users doing this in recent years. Citizens found breaking the government’s internet restrictions could lose their internet connection entirely, while businesses doing similar will face heavy fines.

The UK and the U.S.

The United Kingdom has not experienced isolation to the same degree as the other countries discussed. Nevertheless, there have still been some efforts made to exclude UK citizens from specific sections of the global internet, starting with the Pirate Bay. Stemming from copyright holders’ desires to protect their intellectual property, the block was implemented at the ISP level. IP addresses within the UK attempting to connect to the Pirate Bay are blocked by internet providers.

Following this, the UK government has made attempts to block underage access to pornography websites, but these have failed both technically and legally. The U.S. constitution’s protection of free speech, along with the high level of influence from America over the global internet, have contributed to the UK ‘porn block’ being delayed or cancelled repeatedly. There is also the technical issue that any blacklist-style blocking is easily circumvented by using a VPN to connect through a non-UK IP address.

Even the U.S. itself has some elements of balkanization. Since Europe’s GDPR came into effect, some American businesses have tried to block European access to their websites in order to avoid the complications associated with GDPR compliance. Again, this is easily circumvented with VPNs or IP spoofing.

Neither the UK nor the U.S. should yet be seen as part of the balkanization trend; but these examples demonstrate some of the internal pressures that can lead to national control and isolation.

Globalization

The single international force that works against this trend towards national internet isolation is economic globalization. Countries trade with each other, and the global internet makes this easier and more efficient. The U.S. and China trade on a massive scale; China and Russia are heavily invested in America and Europe; U.S. corporations trade throughout the world; and China uses its economic power to progress its political influence everywhere, even buying entire foreign ports. The global internet is a huge force in the global economy. Under normal circumstances, globalization would prevent balkanization.

But – and this is a big but – these are not normal times. Globalization is itself under threat from the rising tide of nationalism and worsening geopolitical relations. Nowhere is this best seen than in the current trade wars, and nowhere is it more dangerous than that between America and China. Nationalism ensures that each country insists on the best possible deal for itself. But this generally leads to a tit-for-tat introduction on trade tariffs that has a negative effect on trade and the whole process of globalization.

The World Economic Forum, comprising the world’s top business leaders and economists, considers that balkanization (which it calls fragmentation) is currently one of the primary threats to the global economy. “Fragmentation of cyberspace and technologies” it warns in its latest report, “could aggravate these economic consequences [a reduction in national GDPs] by having negative effects on businesses’ use of cloud services, increased transactional costs of doing business across parallel jurisdictions and lower productivity by requiring different production lines for different markets.”

What now for the global internet?

The best of all possible worlds is for current geopolitical tensions to recede and trade wars to end. This could lead to the global internet reverting to its former position as a power for international good and the global economy.

The worst of all possible worlds is for the fragmenting effect of balkanization to continue. This could lead to a two-tiered internet: a global internet accessible only to business owners and governments, while citizens are restricted to their local balkanized national intranet.

If the latter happens, the only current technological solution for most users would be the use of a high-quality VPN, provided it can gain access to a foreign jurisdiction that isn’t blocking the site they wish to visit.