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π Geopolitics

Splinternet: how geopolitics is fracturing cyberspace

MHALLA Asma
Asma Mhalla
specialist in the geopolitics of the digital economy and lecturer at Sciences Po Paris and École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • Today, cyberspace has become a battleground for power struggles between nations, leading to a fracturing of the global network.
  • It can be used as a weapon of war between countries, to cut off access to information, retrieve data or spread propaganda.
  • Some states are disconnecting from the global Internet in favour of their own network, isolated from the rest, over which they have control.
  • Authoritarian regimes use this phenomenon to gain control over their population and public opinion.
  • This weakens democracies: as the global Internet remains accessible to authoritarian regimes, foreign interference can occur.

In 1989, Tim Bern­ers-Lee and his team at CERN intro­duced an inno­va­tion that would change the world: the World Wide Web. This inno­va­tion, known sim­ply as the Web, linked the entire world through almost inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This was its pri­ma­ry goal1: to enable researchers in dif­fer­ent fields to com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er and share their knowl­edge instantly.

The Splin­ter­net is the estab­lish­ment of a mul­ti­po­lar Inter­net, frag­ment­ed into as many closed cyber­spaces as there are com­pet­ing blocks in the world.

The Inter­net there­fore comes from a dream, that of exchange, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and mutu­al aid. But today, this dream seems increas­ing­ly unre­al­is­tic. Why is this? Accord­ing to Asma Mhal­la, a spe­cial­ist in the polit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal stakes of the dig­i­tal econ­o­my and a lec­tur­er at Sci­ences Po Paris and École Poly­tech­nique (IP Paris), cyber­space has under­gone a process of mil­i­tari­sa­tion, “It has become a bat­tle­ground for pow­er strug­gles between nations, and more pre­cise­ly between dis­tinct ide­o­log­i­cal blocs, lead­ing to a frac­tured glob­al net­work,” she says. “As such, the Splin­ter­net was formed.”

What is the Splinternet? 

To bet­ter under­stand what the Splin­ter­net is, it is nec­es­sary to under­stand what cyber­space is. This space is struc­tured in three inter­de­pen­dent macro-lay­ers2. The first is the phys­i­cal lay­er, and revolves around the var­i­ous infra­struc­tures that enable this net­work of con­nec­tiv­i­ty to be estab­lished: the dat­a­cen­tres, the servers, the cables, etc.  The sec­ond is the log­i­cal lay­er: pro­to­cols, lan­guages, infor­ma­tion sys­tems. And the last, the seman­tic or cog­ni­tive lay­er, refers to all the appli­ca­tions in direct con­tact with the user. 

“Ini­tial­ly, this space was intend­ed to be free and open. It was con­ceived in the 1960s with the ideas of its time and was then marked by the idea of hap­py glob­al­i­sa­tion,” explains Asma Mhal­la. “How­ev­er, the poten­tial of this tech­nol­o­gy even­tu­al­ly turned it into a strate­gic issue. The Inter­net has thus become a new are­na for influ­ence, con­fronta­tion, and pow­er rela­tions between dif­fer­ent world pow­ers.” Today, its ubiq­ui­tous use and the wealth of data it gen­er­ates make it a tar­get of war­fare – even a weapon. “This process of mil­i­tari­sa­tion of cyber­space has made it the 5th dimen­sion of con­ven­tion­al war­fare (the first 4 being: land, sea, sky and space),” she says. “The three macro-lay­ers have become tar­gets for the mil­i­tary strate­gies of states.”

Take the exam­ple of the war in Ukraine: Rus­sia is attack­ing the infra­struc­ture (phys­i­cal lay­er) to cut off the Inter­net, or at least dis­rupt it. The Net­blocks asso­ci­a­tion also accus­es Rus­sia of hav­ing redi­rect­ed the Ukrain­ian net­work to its own net­work, with the aim of recov­er­ing data (log­i­cal lay­er). Final­ly, the Krem­lin’s influ­ence on appli­ca­tions in direct con­tact with the user (seman­tic lay­er) allows it to spread its pro­pa­gan­da and jus­ti­fy its invasion. 

Con­nec­tiv­i­ty to the Ukrain­ian net­work by provider. Net­blocks observed a dis­con­nec­tion in con­nec­tiv­i­ty which, upon its return to ser­vice, was redi­rect­ed to Russ­ian providers3.

“Through this process of mil­i­tari­sa­tion, some states, such as Rus­sia, are begin­ning to dis­con­nect from the glob­al Inter­net,” she notes, “in favour of an iso­lat­ed and dis­con­nect­ed Inter­net, a kind of scaled-up intranet. Basi­cal­ly, and beyond the ques­tion of tech­ni­cal fea­si­bil­i­ty, the sub­ject is noth­ing less than ide­o­log­i­cal: the Splin­ter­net is the estab­lish­ment of a mul­ti­po­lar Inter­net, frag­ment­ed into as many closed or semi-closed cyber­spaces as there are com­pet­ing blocks in the world. This phe­nom­e­non is tak­ing place in sym­me­try with the recom­po­si­tion of the world order cur­rent­ly being pushed by states such as Rus­sia and Chi­na, which are work­ing towards a mul­ti­po­lar inter­na­tion­al order that will dis­rupt Amer­i­can predominance.”

An existing fragmentation

Accord­ing to this def­i­n­i­tion, it is clear that the Splin­ter­net is already here. And Chi­na was the first to launch this frag­men­ta­tion. It start­ed with the imple­men­ta­tion of the Great Fire­wall of Chi­na, aimed at block­ing access to all web­sites that do not sup­port the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty (CCP). While not cen­sor­ing the entire Inter­net, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has man­aged to estab­lish per­va­sive con­trol over its con­tent. “This shield, which lim­its access to Amer­i­can tech­nol­o­gy giants, par­tic­u­lar­ly for uses that inter­face direct­ly with users, has cre­at­ed a rel­a­tive­ly closed ecosys­tem,” says Asma Mhal­la. “The aim was to quick­ly cre­ate a sov­er­eign Chi­nese tech ecosys­tem, and more specif­i­cal­ly the BATX, the Chi­nese dig­i­tal giants, enabling the CCP to devel­op a form of tech­no­log­i­cal sov­er­eign­ty under con­trol, essen­tial­ly social and polit­i­cal con­trol.” Today, the CCP has been able to devel­op a Chi­nese Inter­net, with its 3 macro lay­ers, and its own worldview.

How­ev­er, Chi­na is not the only pow­er to have embarked on a project of this scale. Iran, too, has devel­oped its own struc­tures to have an Inter­net cut off from the world. And recent­ly, Rus­sia seems to be mov­ing in the same direc­tion, as Kévin Limonier, a Russ­ian-speak­ing cyber­space spe­cial­ist, notes. The Russ­ian net­work was con­nect­ed to the glob­al Inter­net, but, accord­ing to Limonier, Putin is grad­u­al­ly devel­op­ing the idea of infor­ma­tion­al sov­er­eign­ty4. This can be seen in var­i­ous pieces of leg­is­la­tion issued by the Krem­lin over the past decade. The law “On the cre­ation of a sov­er­eign Inter­net”5, adopt­ed in Novem­ber 2019, is the most sig­nif­i­cant with regard to the Splin­ter­net. This 100% Russ­ian inter­net has been named the RuNet.

Chi­na is not the only pow­er to have embarked on a project of this scale.

In Rus­sia, as in Chi­na, the Inter­net was ini­tial­ly con­nect­ed to the glob­al net­work, and it remains dif­fi­cult to dis­con­nect from it. “Rus­sia is still in a test and learn phase for the first two lay­ers of cyber­space,” says the spe­cial­ist. “As for the third lay­er, the seman­tic lay­er, it is grad­u­al­ly dis­as­so­ci­at­ing itself from it. RuNet will accel­er­ate the process.” The Rus­sians are begin­ning to have their own net­work of appli­ca­tions in direct con­tact with the user: search engines, social net­works, e‑mail sys­tems, etc.

With these three Inter­nets, devel­oped by these dif­fer­ent pow­ers, we can con­sid­er that the glob­al Inter­net, ours, is a fourth part of the Splin­ter­net – albeit not a closed one. 

Democracies in a weak position

The Splin­ter­net is there­fore already present, and the coun­tries that have pro­voked this state of frag­men­ta­tion have one thing in com­mon: they are author­i­tar­i­an regimes. This com­mon­al­i­ty seems log­i­cal: the Inter­net has the char­ac­ter­is­tic of facil­i­tat­ing debate and the exchange of opin­ions, which can be seen as antag­o­nis­tic to dic­ta­tor­ship. More­over, the Inter­net offers the pos­si­bil­i­ty of con­trol­ling the infor­ma­tion that is dis­sem­i­nat­ed on it, and there­fore the pos­si­bil­i­ty of infor­ma­tion­al sov­er­eign­ty: author­i­tar­i­an regimes have an inter­est in hav­ing this type of con­trol, which is syn­ony­mous with the con­trol of local com­mon opinion.

How­ev­er, cir­cum­ven­tion strate­gies exist, such as the use of a VPN. Even if in a dic­ta­tor­ship these strate­gies remain iso­lat­ed acts and are not main­stream, VPNs show that this frag­men­ta­tion is not water­tight. The con­cern is that the lev­el of impen­e­tra­bil­i­ty is not the same between dic­ta­tor­ships and democ­ra­cies, for the sim­ple rea­son that the glob­al Inter­net remains acces­si­ble to pow­ers with their own Inter­net. The desta­bil­i­sa­tion of our Inter­net can there­fore be mas­sive, as for­eign inter­fer­ence is eas­i­er to achieve.

“This is the great weak­ness of democ­ra­cies in this sto­ry, because the net­works remain porous by nature,” says Asma Mhal­la. “This poros­i­ty rep­re­sents an oppor­tu­ni­ty for inter­fer­ence and influ­ence at low cost for author­i­tar­i­an regimes. Democ­ra­cy can, in the long run, be real­ly weak­ened by this. The West­ern bloc is thus in an exis­ten­tial cri­sis and must quick­ly clar­i­fy its tech­nop­o­lit­i­cal mod­el.” In April, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, Joe Biden called for a “free and open” Inter­net. This appeal, which was signed by some six­ty coun­tries6, shows the con­cern of West­ern coun­tries, and their will­ing­ness to act, about the direc­tion that cyber­space is tak­ing. How­ev­er, the future of the Inter­net also rais­es oth­er ques­tions for Euro­pean coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing their depen­dence on the Amer­i­cans in this area.

Pablo Andres
1https://​www​.home​.cern/​f​r​/​s​c​i​e​n​c​e​/​c​o​m​p​u​t​i​n​g​/​b​i​r​t​h-web
2Ven­tre, D. 2011. Cybere­space et acteurs du cyber­con­flit. Her­mès sci­ence pub­li­ca­tions. 
3https://​net​blocks​.org/​r​e​p​o​r​t​s​/​i​n​t​e​r​n​e​t​-​d​i​s​r​u​p​t​i​o​n​s​-​r​e​g​i​s​t​e​r​e​d​-​a​s​-​r​u​s​s​i​a​-​m​o​v​e​s​-​i​n​-​o​n​-​u​k​r​a​i​n​e​-​W​8​0​p4k8K
4LIMONIER Kévin, AUDINET Maxime, « La stratégie d’influence infor­ma­tion­nelle et numérique de la Russie en Europe », Hérodote, 2017/1 (N° 164), p. 123–144. DOI : 10,391 7/her.164.0123. https://www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2017–1‑page-123.htm
5Rap­port d’ICANN : lois sur l’Internet en Fédéra­tion de Russie et délibéra­tions aux Nations Unies ; https://itp.cdn.icann.org/fr/files/government-engagement-ge/ge-006–19jan21-fr.pdf
6Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, Dec­la­ra­tion for the Future of Inter­net; https://​dig​i​tal​-strat​e​gy​.ec​.europa​.eu/​e​n​/​l​i​b​r​a​r​y​/​d​e​c​l​a​r​a​t​i​o​n​-​f​u​t​u​r​e​-​i​n​t​ernet

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