Will the Internet Fragment?

  • Published

Will the Internet Fragment? by Milton Mueller. Polity Press, 2017, 177 pp.

Dr. Milton Mueller, co-founder of the Internet Governance Project (IGP) at the Georgia Institute of Technology, delivers a thought-provoking, on-target text in Will the Internet Fragment? Ironically, like the application mashups one sees today on consumer webpages, this work offers a logical mashup perspective wedged between various technical and political internet fragmentation causes as well as potential effects. The text examines state and nonstate interest areas where fragmentation may occur or be prevented. Further, Mueller advances the IGP charter when addressing the need for unfettered communication lanes and solid internet governance structures to support open global trade primarily enhanced by non-state-based organizations. The short book reads quickly and speaks eloquently to several difficult issues through explaining fragmentation and discussing technical and political causes for fragmentation and ultimately delivers policy makers a potential way ahead. Mueller successfully tackles every issue, promising that the internet, while not immediately fragmenting, will still form new and different associations changing our overall, shared Global Cyber Commons (GCC) experience.

This excellent work’s underlying theory suggests while the internet is not currently fragmented, future splits will arise from resolving underlying governance issues; whether the internet merely aligns through existing states or globalizes into new options. Mueller’s basic internet fragmentation argument builds from previous international order structure; for example, when the Soviet empire collapsed, Eastern Europe Balkanized into several independent states. Critically, while a central entity did control Eastern Europe, no single entity has ever exerted sole internet control. Instead, various technical protocols and organizations, sometimes managed by states, sometimes by other forces, exert some control over continuously changing internet elements. Mueller exquisitely develops four main points: global communications are good, technical fragmentation threats are overexaggerated, states use technical threats to disguise power seeking behaviors, and finally, US internet leadership will not equate to free, open, and globalized communications. In the process, he actually asserts two opposite truths: the internet is both now and forever fragmented as well as a unified whole.

As when exploring any difficult rhetorical argument, Mueller first develops an internet fragmentation taxonomy. This effectively introduces several basic concept linkages from the more traditional Open Source Initiative network model to the various governance approaches. The central challenge is presented as recognizing critical fragmentation separate from daily network hiccups including system outages, corporate censorship, sites changing to paywall formats, and nationally blocked domains. Each of the previous remains fairly common to the billions who use the internet daily. Mueller’s main concerns emerge as two categories with subsets: intentional fragmentation with private, intermediary, and third party coercive subsets; and unintentional fragmentation with breakdowns and structural incompatibility subsets. An identified key difficulty appears in discriminating those internet areas where some powers intentionally removes themselves versus those where unintentionally fragmentation occurs from social change.

The text moves on to intentional, technical fragmentation. The most obvious fragmentation arises in changing technology or protocols, where combinations of software and hardware no longer communicate. These changes remain easiest to solve as the internet’s basic nature relies on routine communications with most networks are built for redundancy and resiliency between protocols. Technical discussions focus on protocols; creating national networks; locating kill switches for strategic, national gateways; splitting the DNS root; or simply incompatible protocols. Mueller provides clear examples, grounding theoretical fears against actual impacts. After creating a solid foundation, the next several chapters address fragmentation originating from manipulating alignment and governance.

Alignment concerns, for Mueller, tie tightly to his earlier work, Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance (MIT Press, 2010). A clearly formatted list begins the alignment discussion; national securitization effects, information flow territorialization, and creating national critical information flows. National securitization relates to how one defends their own internet spaces from another state, territorialization to practices which limit virtual space to geographic boundaries, and critical information flow to being able to deny one’s own internet from people inside one’s own physical or logical domains. The first item uses national agencies, the second content filtering or geotagging, and the third through domain registration and physical switches to throttle usage. For each item, Mueller includes clear examples, either real or hypothetical, about how each fragmentation may occur. Although he clearly favors multinational governance, he does present all approaches equally.

After the two chapters on alignment, the remainder of the work addresses other challenges, the first being obtaining better international legal cooperation on intellectual property, understanding whose national law applies to what issues, and what constitutes acceptable filtering for proprietary concepts. A second challenge considers if all states abdicate responsibility in favor of a single, central power and a third challenge if a single, multinational group emerges instead. Mueller recognizes larger groups are unlikely to possess the scope to address lower level issues at the regional or city level. Lower issues will be driven through networked group identities, emerging net nationalism between groups, and where new groups displace older groups to achieve desired effects.  

Dr. Mueller’s text performs exquisitely identifying those mashup issues critical to evaluating Internet fragmentation. The discussion highlights difficult issues in an easy to understand manner and leaves deeper questions for future studies. The arguments were complete and clearly presented an overview of the issues at hand. Unusually, my biggest complaint here is the work was entirely too short. My Polity Press copy runs closer to a trade paperback size than an academic format and finishes at about 150 pages of text. The topics initiated by Mueller are complicated and critical to future internet development. Many, if not all, of the topics require additional discussion, and a more highly developed case study on any one of the briefly mentioned examples would have been beneficial. Instead, the text whets the appetite for more research in this vein. Hopefully, this oversight was intentional by Mueller and perhaps designed to drive individuals towards those research and articles offered by his own Internet Governance Project (internetgovernance.org).

This text was outstanding, short, and an excellent read for those working either governance or technical issues associated with cyberspace. As in previous writings, Mueller clearly outlines critical issues, highlights effective examples, and moves the ball forward. He continues to demonstrate outstanding thoughts, research, and writing on global internet governance challenges. Each chapter carefully addresses a fragmentation piece, achieves a limited goal, and draws the reader on. Again, the only drawback is the work fails to dive as deeply as I may have preferred but still addresses everything required to complete the topic presented in the text. With the book’s low price, small size, and critical content, I recommend anyone working in cyberspace policy issues should find and read a copy of this work in the near term.

Mark Peters

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."