In 2021, Cloudfare named Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok the most popular website in the world, surpassing Google. Launched in 2016, the platform revolutionized the microvideo format on the web, forcing most of its competitors to integrate the format into their own apps. Despite its enormous popularity, the app remains out of reach for millions of people around the world – often thanks to their own governments. Take India, where the app was banned along with 58 others days after a border dispute with China.
India’s TikTok ban is among the prominent examples of the internet carrying geopolitical baggage. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when global internet usage was still in its infancy, technology would enable the emergence of a new limitless utopia. In the world of the internet, everyone would be equal; Walls between nations and communities would be torn down, geopolitical conflicts would become superfluous in the digital sphere. The thought was that the internet would herald an information revolution where anyone in any part of the world could access all the world’s knowledge with a single click.
Two decades later, that vision was becoming more and more distant. Not only has the Internet not brought about a radical change in international politics, but it has become a component that strengthens existing global relationships. Far from heralding an age of global borderlessness, the Internet has become entangled in global – and local – politics. Rather than being rendered obsolete by the influence of the internet, geopolitics has influenced the internet to look different in different regions. Indeed, we live in a time when technology commentators are increasingly using the term “splinternet” to describe the powers of the world migrating to their own hyperlocal internets.
Perhaps the best-known prototype of the Splinternet is in China. In 2000, then-US President Bill Clinton, in a speech at Johns Hopkins University, hinted at the possibility that the Internet could unleash a new information age in China. “We know how much the internet has changed America, and we’re already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China,” Clinton famously said. In the years that followed, the Chinese government — in an approach known as The Great Firewall — kept every major Western website blocked or censored. The country is known to have a local alternative for every major app and website. In fact, China was already taking action against American websites during Clinton’s speech, which he also acknowledged. However, he stressed that these attempts would be unsuccessful. “It’s like nailing jelly to the wall.”
In 2022, China isn’t the only country trying to keep the global internet in check. Jillian C. York, an American free speech activist, notes that location often determines what information can be accessed on the Internet. Even something as simple as a map has different iterations depending on the region you want to access it from. Therefore, York writes, “A Pakistani user sees a sanitized version of Twitter, while an American user has access, as far as we know, to all the content they want.”
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Bans, censorship and firewalls are just a few of the many ways countries are using the internet as a tool to guide their international – and local – policies. There are other, more serious ways in which nations have temporarily disabled the Internet’s potential to deliver unbridled information to every person on the Internet. India, for example, kept the people of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir in an extended internet shutdown for over a year after its decision to repeal Article 370 of the constitution. The expanded internet ban is designed to quell possible protests following the government’s highly controversial move. The shutdown helped stop the leaking of information from Kashmir to the outside world and vice versa.
At this point it should be noted that the situation in Kashmir was not the first time that the Indian government decided to shut down the internet in a region. In fact, the world’s largest democracy has also been the largest enforcer of internet shutdowns for the past four years. These shutdowns have often been used in conflict zones during anti-government protests. Recently, state governments in India have also made use of shutdowns during government job exams.
In addition, the digital space remains unevenly aligned with the western world. Most social media is owned and operated by American-based companies that often operate under American laws and values. York notes that this often creates gray areas when it comes to issues like terrorism. At times, American definitions determine the global legitimacy of local political actors. Therefore, “in several countries, groups that the US designates as terrorists are legitimate political actors active in local or national legislatures.”
It could also create a situation where countries that don’t align with larger Western interests could simply be kicked off the internet. For example, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the latter asked the Internet Corporation to Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the US-based organization that manages top-level domain names, to deny Russia access to its systems. These and other sanctions imposed on Russia have prompted it to actively work to cut itself off from Western servers and systems as it seeks to develop its own sovereign internet.
At other times, social media’s ignorance of local political situations means they are unable to efficiently curb extremist material circulating online in low-income countries. Or worse, social media groups are partnering with the governments of these countries to stay in business. For example, casteist and anti-Islamic hate speech and posts in India are rarely censored on these platforms. Therefore, Meta or Twitter’s commitment to zero tolerance for online hate has very different definitions depending on what borders you’re surrounded by.
All of this is not to say that the Internet has not greatly democratized information and knowledge. In fact, on many occasions the internet has managed to circumvent government-enforced information blocks to make knowledge and content available to people through simple tools like VPN and torrents. Internet activism has also revolved heavily around ensuring the decentralization of data through the use of multiple servers and privacy protection tools. However, these tools and evasions are under constant attack from governments and corporations, and only used by a fraction of the digital population.
The larger global online population therefore remains largely at the mercy of their own local internets. Or you could say they stay connected to their own splinternets.