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Democracy & Technology Blog Fragmenting the Internet

Proof that you can never have it both ways can be found in a report by Christopher Rhoads in today’s Wall Street Journal, which notes that countries and organizations are erecting rival Internets. Internet pioneers such as Vinton Cerf are alarmed about a fragmentation of the Internet, according to Rhoads. But we should step back and give thanks for what this development is not. It is not U.N. control of the Internet. The U.N. is a sclerotic, and some say corrupt, organization that is full of strange notions about the importance of personal and commercial freedom. Were it to control the Internet, foreign dictators and bureaucrats would be able to influence how we can use the Internet in this country. Many foresaw the possibility of rival Internets–as well as the likelihood of their inevitability–in the wake of the Bush Administration’s success in beating back the proposal for an Internet dominated by the U.N.
The advent of rival Internets will create challenges, but it will also increase interest and participation in what has always been a “network of networks.” Rivals may also help to limit the impact of Internet abuses by repressive regimes, and will certainly limit the opportunities for control by world organizations. Your domain name may no longer be your domain name in every corner of the world, but with a bit of ingenuity there should be no reason that we can’t continue to have as much order and stability as we want in the U.S.
Rival Internets will be an interesting test case for those who believe that government regulation is needed to facilitate network interconnection, such as the drafters of various proposals for telecom reform on Capitol Hill. My prediction is that interconnection between rival Internets will be the norm, not the exception. For one thing, the benefits of interconnection are disproportionately felt by the users of a smaller network, who gain access to more content and services than they would otherwise have. For another, interconnection can be direct or indirect. Years ago, when the old AT&T refused to interconnect with upstart MCI, the upstart was able to gain access to AT&T’s customers by finding a small, independent local exchange carrier who was both interconnected with AT&T and who was willing to interconnect with MCI. The involuntary interconnection that MCI thereby achieved with AT&T through indirect means may not have been ideal from a network engineering perspective, but it worked.
It has been obvious for some time that the Internet is becomming too important culturally and politically for the status quo to continue indefinitely. The Internet appears to have outgrown places like Silicon Valley and Marina del Rey–perhaps making it less likely that the future will look like Star Trek, where Earth is a member of a Federation of Planets which is headquartered in San Francisco of all places.

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.