An interesting report by Merics

The current state and future trajectory of Internet technology worldwide is at a critical juncture. It’s uncertain whether the Internet will continue to expand its connectivity smoothly to an ever-growing number of people and devices, or whether it will fragment into numerous disconnected digital and physical domains and technologies. China is a key player in this potential fragmentation, as it seeks to create a “secure and controllable” internet, effectively erecting virtual barriers.

The geopolitical underpinnings of this trend are highlighted by two separate declarations. In April 2022, the “Declaration on the Future of the Internet” was endorsed by European countries, the United States and over 40 other governments, but not by China. Instead, in November 2022, China, through its State Council, put forward its own perspective with the “Declaration on Jointly Building a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace”. The “Declaration on the Future of the Internet” starts with a focus on human rights and freedoms, while China’s approach prioritises security, with cyber sovereignty as a key principle.

Despite these clear differences, European countries also regulate the internet, resulting in a diverse web experience across different local networks. Even the EU contributes to this fragmentation with regulations such as GDPR, creating a regional network. Europe has good reasons to increase its internet security due to increasing misinformation campaigns, cyber attacks and other challenges. However, China’s regulations and access barriers are more comprehensive and stringent than Europe’s.

This report looks at how ideological differences manifest themselves in different aspects of the internet, including data flows, web applications, internet protocols and digital hardware. These elements represent a cross-section of the Internet infrastructure, encapsulating dominant trends and challenges, and suggesting potential responses for European stakeholders.

The report distinguishes between regional differences and deeper fragmentation. The former affects the user experience but is relatively superficial, allowing for reversible interventions, such as China’s early Great Firewall censorship efforts. The latter, on the other hand, involves barriers to the core technological functions of the internet, requiring complex changes to governance, standards or routing systems, and is much harder to reverse. China has moved from regional differences to initiating deeper incompatibilities through a mix of technical, commercial and regulatory means.

The report’s analysis is based on the Internet Society’s framework, which is in line with the EU’s Digital Strategy and advocates an Internet that is open, globally connected, secure and trustworthy. However, the implementation of this vision faces challenges due to the evolution of China’s “Great Firewall” into a more structurally integrated part of its internet infrastructure.

In China, significant parts of the Internet are already off-limits to non-Chinese ID and phone number holders. Foreign companies in China face difficulties in transferring data due to unclear security regulations. Furthermore, different terminologies complicate discussions on common standards and norms.

Using a multi-stakeholder model, European stakeholders should seek clarity and reciprocity from their Chinese counterparts and engage in dialogue to avoid deeper technological fragmentation that could make interconnectivity physically difficult. At the same time, Europe should prepare for a more fundamentally fragmented Internet by reducing its dependence on China.

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