The internet as we know it may no longer exist, warns an EU-funded researcher. If it continues to decay, our beloved “network of networks” will revert to being just a bunch of networks. And it will be the fault of all of us.
“The idea of an open and global Internet is gradually deteriorating, and the Internet itself is changing,” writes Konstantinos Komaitis, “Internet Fragmentation.
In short, the global and open nature of the Internet is influenced by larger geopolitical forces that are possibly beyond everyone’s control. “The fragmentation of the Internet should be seen as both a driving force and a reflection of an increasingly fragmented international order,” Komayit concluded.
The vision of the Internet has always been end-to-end communication, where one end device on the Internet could exchange packets with any other end device, regardless of which network one was on. And essentially, the Internet was supposed to be open, with no central governing authority, allowing everyone in the world to connect to the benefit of everyone, rich or poor.
In practice, these technical and ideological goals may have worked inconsistently (NAT…cough), but the Internet has managed to continue for a very long time with minimal managed effort.
However, this may not always be the case, Komayit predicts.
He notes that the Internet is beset on all sides by potential fragmentation, from commercial pressures, technical changes and government interference. Komayit singled out several culprits.
- DNS:The Domain Name System is the index that holds everything together by mapping domain names to IP numbers. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages this work globally, but nothing prevents another party from creating an alternative root server. A few have tried. The International Telecommunication Union’s Digital Object Architecture (DOA) and Europe’s Network and Information Systems both set out to challenge the global DNS.
- IPv4 to IPv6 translation is disabledEfforts to move the Internet from the limited IPv4 addressing scheme to the much larger IPv6 address pool have been ongoing for more than two decades, with only limited success so far. “While adoption of IPv6 addresses has been steadily increasing, there is still a long way to go,” writes Komaitis. He notes that “only 32 economies” have IPv6 adoption rates above the global average of 30%. Without full adoption of IPv6, he argues, the Internet will continue to be fragmented, with no guarantee of end-to-end connectivity between users of one version or another.
- Blocking Internet ContentGovernments take a keen interest in curating the Internet for their own citizens, using tools such as DNS filtering, IP blocking, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, and search engine removal. The most prominent example is China, which operates “a sophisticated filtering system that can control what content users are exposed to,” Komais wrote.
- Termination of peering agreementsThe Internet is the result of a series of bilateral partnership agreements that allow very small Internet service providers to share address space with global conglomerates. However, more and more large telcos are prioritizing their own traffic at the expense of smaller players. The European Union is looking for ways to restructure these agreements, although South Korea tried it, and the results ended up just confusing and overwhelming the market, Komaitis writes.
Other mitigating factors Komais discussed include walled gardens, data localization practices (ie GDPR), and continued government interest/interference in open standards bodies.
What does all this mean for the European Union, which funded this review? The union has already pledged to offer everyone online access by 2030, and to thwart any government attempts to throttle or prioritize internet traffic. He also pledged to work with the US and other governments to ensure the internet is “open, global and interoperable”.
So the EU has to make a choice whether or not to support its promises.
“Moving forward, Europe must choose what kind of Internet it wants: open, global, interoperable, or fragmented and limited in choice.” Komitis wrote:
The EU Cyber Diplomacy Initiative is “an EU-funded project focused on policy support, research, awareness-raising and capacity building in the field of cyber diplomacy,” according to the project’s website.