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Do we need to worry about the "splinternet"?

 
If anything has brought global change, it’s digital. The utopian hope was that the internet would break down barriers – but as governments have woken up to the enormous power of tech giants, we are now seeing competing moves to bring the online world under greater political control. 

So are we right to fear what’s been dubbed the “splinternet” – where users face different online rules, and perhaps even different platforms, depending on their geographical location?

Max Beverton-Palmer, head of Internet Policy for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, argues on the latest episode of Tech Shock that we are at a crucial moment for deciding how we manage online risks.   

“2021 is an incredibly important year due to the depth and range of policy issues that are in discussion around the world,” he told Tech Shock. “The technology we are working with is global. Solutions that only work in one territory or one government will undermine the benefits we have seen over the last 30 years.” 

A geopolitical priority

Last week, EU commissioner Ursula von der Leyen called on the US to work with the EU on regulation, excluding the UK and other countries - although both India and Australia  have recently been in the news for attempts to regulate tech companies that may have important lessons for the rest of the world. 

Beverton-Parker says the answer is to “focus on global cooperation".

“Governments need to see internet policy and the development of internet standards as a geopolitical priority for countries around the world.

“I’m hesitating to say we definitely need new institutions because there are already a few that govern the global internet. Perhaps we need a reframing of what we think is accountability and governance in 2021.” 

Finding a shared set of values

Despite not holding “much hope” for the internet under current conditions, Beverton-Parker does however see a way beyond the “splinternet”. 

“Especially post-pandemic we’ve seen a real lack of global coordination on tackling some of the greatest challenges we’ve faced in a generation,” he says. 

“Perhaps there’s a turning point for saying there is a new way we can cooperate or a set of shared values we can agree. 

“It can be through different ways, whether that’s trade agreements or significant regulatory interventions – like the GDPR which has basically dragged privacy regulation forward across the world.”

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