Balkanization of the Internet

The Future of the Network?

The internet is rapidly moving to a vastly different reality from that to which people have become accustomed today. The concept of cyberspace as sovereign territory combined with increasingly divergent political systems across the world will affect dramatic change on the internet and its up-to-now universal nature. The free exchange of ideas and information that has come to characterize the World Wide Web is therefore likely to become increasingly restricted and policed by national accession regulations mirroring those of real-world national borders. Resultantly, the world is likely to lose the seamless interconnectedness of online communication, and instead move toward competing governing models that mirror the unfolding great power competition, primarily between the U.S. and China, but involving other nations too. This great power competition is manifesting itself online through control of information, power over regulations, and their influence on other countries’ internets. Resultantly, developing a “competitive partnership” that maintains the benefits of a universally accessible internet might become increasingly difficult. It will be for policymakers to decide which path ultimately leads to greater prosperity.

The move to disaggregate the internet has been slowly occurring over a much longer period of time than many will realize, however. And in a more muted way than many will appreciate. In 2003, with the purported purpose of strengthening Wi-Fi security, the Chinese government initiated the WLAN (wireless local area networks) Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI). WAPI is a Chinese National Standard for WLAN that mandates wireless devices sold in China to include WAPI support. Foreign companies conducting business in China are required to comply and those selling connected devises must ensure their products are compliant with WAPI.

Double exposure of abstract virtual technology hologram with hexagon on Chinese flag and blue sky background. Research and development software concept

WAPI’s importance is better understood in the wider context of China’s laws. Foreign companies operating in China must sign a co-production agreement with a limited number of specifically designated Chinese companies. These Chinese partner firms can demand full disclosure of foreign technological intellectual property, claiming the law is impossible to implement without access to specific intellectual property. Concurrent with this, the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law and 2017 National Intelligence Law require companies to “support, assist, and cooperate” with the state’s intelligence network, effectively making companies unable to protect any data and information from government demands and making them an indirect intelligence collection asset to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The law extends to include employee rosters and customer lists, effectively granting the CCP access to the personal data a company holds on anyone worldwide. China has formulated this law to extract valuable information from all businesses operating within its borders and WAPI is one tool that helps achieve this. Because WAPI would require software compliance on all products produced in China, a foreign vendor who wants access to the Chinese market would have no pushback against such demands.

Conversely, the US has been slowly expanding its list of export controls on semiconductor related products as well as sensitive materials and technology to China via the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List. The Entity List, which gained the addition of China’s largest semiconductor manufacturing company, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) in September 2020, now includes more than 300 Chinese companies.

How is the Internet Currently Governed?

Internet Society – Internet Architecture Board: Manages Internet Architecture

The Internet Society (ISOC), which comprises chapters all over the world, is charged with guiding standards, access, policies, and improvements related to the internet. Under the sponsorship of the ISOC, and its Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the architectural oversight of the internet is governed by the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) - a committee established to develop and promote internet standards.

Practically speaking, the IAB offers technical direction for the Internet’s development, ensuring it continues to grow and evolve as a platform for global communication and innovation. Its origins as a U.S. government entity are, however, becoming increasingly problematic for its continued function as the sole body responsible for the internet’s architecture. Though independent and under the guidance of the ISOC since 1992, the IAB is the descendent of the Internet Configuration Control Board, which itself was the 1979 creation of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This link to the U.S. government, and IAB’s continued location in California has led some of the U.S.’s adversaries to conclude that the U.S. government’s direct link to the IAB, and by implication, control, remains.