For a long time, fear that technical decisions – new domain names ($)(, cooption of open standards or software, laws mandating data localization – would splinter the Internet. “Balkanize” was heard a lot.
A panel at the UK Internet Governance Forum a couple of weeks ago focused on this exact topic, and was mostly self-congratulatory. Which is when it occurred to me that the Internet may not *be* fragmented, but it *feels* fragmented. Almost every day I encounter some site I can’t reach: email goes into someone’s spam folder, the site or its content is off-limits because it’s been geofenced to conform with copyright or data protection laws, or the site mysteriously doesn’t load, with no explanation. The most likely explanation for the latter is censorship built into the Internet feed by the ISP or the establishment whose connection I’m using, but they don’t actually *say* that.
The ongoing attrition at Twitter is exacerbating this feeling, as the users I’ve followed for years continue to migrate elsewhere. At the moment, it takes accounts on several other services to keep track of everyone: definite fragmentation.
Here in the UK, this sense of fragmentation may be about to get a lot worse, as the long-heralded Online Safety bill – written and expanded until it’s become a “Frankenstein bill”, as Mark Scott and Annabelle Dickson report at Politico – hurtles toward passage. This week saw fruitless debates on amendments in the House of Lords, and it will presumably be back in the Commons shortly thereafter, where it could be passed into law by this fall.
A number of companies have warned that the bill, particularly if it passes with its provisions undermining end-to-end encryption intact, will drive them out of the country. I’m not sure British politicians are taking them seriously; so often such threats are idle. But in this case, I think they’re real, not least because post-Brexit Britain carries so much less global and commercial weight, a reality some politicians are in denial about. WhatsApp, Signal, and Apple have all said openly that they will not compromise the privacy of their masses of users elsewhere to suit the UK. Wikipedia has warned that including it in the requirement to age-verify its users will force it to withdraw rather than violate its principles about collecting as little information about users as possible. The irony is that the UK government itself runs on WhatsApp.
Wikipedia, Ian McRae, the director of market intelligence for prospective online safety regulator Ofcom, showed in a presentation at UKIGF, would be just one of the estimated 150,000 sites within the scope of the bill. Ofcom is ramping up to deal with the workload, an effort the agency expects to cost £169 million between now and 2025.
In a legal opinion commissioned by the Open Rights Group, barristers at Matrix Chambers find that clause 9(2) of the bill is unlawful. This, as Thomas Macaulay explains at The Next Web, is the clause that requires platforms to proactively remove illegal or “harmful” user-generated content. In fact: prior restraint. As ORG goes on to say, there is no requirement to tell users why their content has been blocked.
Until now, the impact of most badly-formulated British legislative proposals has been sort of abstract. Data retention, for example: you know that pervasive mass surveillance is a bad thing, but most of us don’t really expect to feel the impact personally. This is different. Some of my non-UK friends will only use Signal to communicate, and I doubt a day goes by that I don’t look something up on Wikipedia. I could use a VPN for that, but if the only way to use Signal is to have a non-UK phone? I can feel those losses already.
And if people think they dislike those ubiquitous cookie banners and consent clickthroughs, wait until they have to age-verify all over the place. Worst case: this bill will be an act of self-harm that one day will be as inexplicable to future generations as Brexit.
The UK is not the only one pursuing this path. Age verification in particular is catching on. The US states of Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Montana, and Utah have all passed legislation requiring it; Pornhub now blocks users in Mississippi and Virginia. The likelihood is that many more countries will try to copy some or all of its provisions, just as Australia’s law requiring the big social media platforms to negotiate with news publishers is spawning copies in Canada and California.
This is where the real threat of the “splinternet” lies. Think of requiring 150,000 websites to implement age verification and proactively police content. Many of those sites, as the law firm Mischon de Reya writes may not even be based in the UK.
This means that any site located outside the UK – and perhaps even some that are based here – will be asking, “Is it worth it?” For a lot of them, it won’t be. Which means that however much the Internet retains its integrity, the British user experience will be the Internet as a sea of holes.
Illustrations: Drunk parrot in a Putney garden (by Simon Bisson; used by permission).
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Mastodon.