Is the Internet Fragmenting? Part 4: The Policy Lens

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The Policy Lens


On December 1, 2016, Microsoft and The Greater Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-DC) held a panel discussion on “Is the Internet fragmenting? Part 4: The Policy Lens” with Michaela Klein, Cheryl Miller, Andrew Sullivan, Sally Wentworth, Jeremy West, Nathan White, and Dr. M-H. Carolyn Nguyen, who moderated the event. This was the fourth and last dialogue in a four part series on Internet fragmentation and focused on policy dimensions of the issue.

“The Policy Lens” brought stakeholders together from government, industry, civil society, and the technical community to examine how policy decisions can lead to fragmentation, and the impact of such fragmentation on the digital economy globally and nationally with the objective of enabling and informing policy that is well intentioned.

The series “Is the Internet Fragmenting examined Internet fragmentation from technical, economic, and policy lenses was organized in response to recent developments related to the Internet. These developments have prompted alarming questions about whether the Internet is fragmenting as a result of developments and decisions that have been taken in response to the continued growth and globalization of the Internet and its evolving role as critical infrastructure for the digital economy. The series kicked off on May 10th.

In this session, the panelists and audience were asked to consider these issues more fully, including:

  • What are the main challenges to maintaining an open, end to end, resilient, and stable internet infrastructure?
  • How do we best develop and maintain local and sustainable ecosystems for the digital economy, particularly ones that are secure and protect privacy?
  • Going forward, how should policy makers develop more holistic views of Internet governance that involve the necessary stakeholders and take into account human and economic rights?
  • How can we as a community enable policy that is well intentioned by better informing policy makers?



Sally Wentworth
VP of Global Policy Development, Internet Society

Micaela Klein
Senior Advisor for Internet Policy, U.S. Department of State

Andrew Sullivan
Fellow, Dyn; Chair, Internet Architecture Board, IETF

Jeremy West
Senior Policy Analyst, OECD-OCDE

Dr. M-H. Carolyn Nguyen – Moderator
Technology Policy Strategist, Microsoft





  • There is a natural tension between the bottom up nature of open standards development and the multistakeholder model best suited for the Internet and the top down nature of policy making. This is exemplified by organization such as the ITU.
  • Internet openness produces substantial economic benefits, however there is currently a lack of robust data to support this. Such data will help to guide policy in the future.
  • Continued interoperability, especially as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow at exponential rates will be essential to achieve the global economic growth and social progress as envisioned by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (STGs). Internet fragmentation is a direct threat to the attainment of those goals.
  • Trust in the Internet will be an essential element in sustaining its future, especially as more and more of our lives are online and Internet use is required. People will need to know that their data, financial transactions, health records, etc., are secure to have continued faith in the Internet.
  • The Internet is by its nature a great amplifier of human rights because it provides a powerful tool for the freedoms of expression and association, and access to information. Therefore, fragmenting the Internet is detrimental to human rights. .
  • The multistakeholder model provides the best framework for people and organizations to work together to ensure the open standards and policies to support them that are necessary to support the continuing evolution of the Internet. It is very important that we provide support and resources to smaller countries that not have the resources to tackle all of the difficult challenges in these endeavors.


The panelists generally agreed that policy makers across the globe need to act to preserve the openness and connectedness of the Internet in a way that strengthens economic and human rights while building trust. A fragmented Internet would likely have adverse economic and human rights consequences.

Andrew Sullivan started the conversation discussing developments in the Internet transport layers, including Google’s QUIC.  Historically there were distinct low level transport layers. Now new protocols have moved some of the transport layer into the application layer. Thus distinct layers are mostly mythical today because they are intermingled in deployment. Nightly updates to the end user OS changes the transport used. This radically alters the environment that we are working in, making maintaining interoperation more challenging.

He went on to say that without open standards, there is not the Internet but rather only a proprietary network that goes end to end. There is a difference between an internet (a complex network of proprietary networks) and the Internet (an open network of networks; the framework that generally exists today and that is increasingly under fire). Mr. Sullivan stated that the Internet was designed to be open and that open standards are necessary from the bottom on up. While certain aspects of the Internet are tolerant of fragmentation (e.g. multiple domain systems), the Internet was not build for complete fragmentation.

Micaela Klein discussed the tension between open standards (developing common technical standards to allow for interoperability) and regulations (government controls that potentially fragment the Internet). The UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) developed as a top down organization to manage international telephone systems. It is primarily government led and is increasingly trying to figure out how to evolve to be able to develop Internet standards. The ITU offers a different forum for Internet governance, one that has seen new players and dynamics. Governments are interested in top-down control of the Internet in their own countries while certain government actors, such as telecom regulators, are interested in bolstering declining revenue and power. These approaches both potentially clash with the original, organic, bottom-up process of the Internet’s development. Ms. Klein described how different actors are claiming that the Internet is “broken” and thus are taking advantage of concerns about privacy and crime to fragment the Internet. Overall, the political process of fragmentation is complex and involves several actors and choices.

Jeremy West described how the OECD is studying the social and economic impacts that fragmentation would have. He started by saying that measuring concrete benefits is a complex process but that the OECD has produced reports and conducted empirical work limited to Internet openness but not as of yet to connecting openness to economic benefits. They have had to look to other literature to examine these economic benefits. There are three broad categories of impact: international trade, innovation and entrepreneurship, and productivity and growth and varying degrees of evidence about the economic impact.

Mr. West went on to describe how the literature showed that a fragmented Internet would hurt international trade in several ways. The power of Internet openness to boost international trade is closely tied to the rise in the value of global value chains which rely on data flows to coordinate activity. Thus, fragmentation would decrease their value.

Additionally, fragmentation would have a tremendous negative impact on the value created by digital trade and data flows. He cited a study which concluded that $600 billion (USD) of European Union service trade depend on the openness of the digital economy and the same center also concluded that the breakdown of the Safe Harbor framework could also have resulted in a very large reduction of EU service exports to the US.

Fragmentation would also result in decreased competitiveness and would hinder innovation since innovation is a collaborative process. While the social benefits of the Internet are harder to quantify, it is clear that shutting down the Internet is expensive. Mr. West cited a number of other papers and projects of work in this subject matter. He stated that a major problem is that quantitative data on the economic benefits of Internet openness are scarce and the OECD is currently working on projects to better help governments measure the digital economy. Improved metrics and a broader perspective of Internet openness will help policy makers seize the benefits of an open Internet and develop well-informed policies aimed towards growth and wellbeing.

Cheryl Miller cited a well-received World Economic Forum (WEF)paper on Internet Fragmentation referenced the paper’s six buckets relative to Government Fragmentation. Those buckets are: (1) Content and Censorship; (2) Ecommerce and Trade; (3) National Security; (4) Privacy and Data Protection; (5) Data Localization; and (6) Cybersovereignty.

She went on to discuss the Internet of Things (IoT) and its important link to the UN’s STG’s and Verizon’s outlook on both. Analysts predict exponential growth in connected devices from millions today to over 20 billion by the year 2020. These devices could bring great economic and social benefits to the world but this future faces severe challenges from fragmentation. A lack of consistency and the minefield of conflicting rules and regulations presents real challenges to rolling out new things that connect to the Internet and to each other. Data localization rules disrupt the seamless communications needed for IoT devices and slow growth and development.

Ms. Miller suggested framework for solutions that includes: A flexible and multistakeholder approach to policy; interagency coordination to produce consistency; continuing efforts to build trust; preventing delays in Ipv6; and making sure there aren’t local data retention requirements.

Sally Wentworth identified access and trust as areas that the Internet Society view as essential for the Internet to continue to evolve and grow. She described trust as having four dimensions: (1) user trust (which includes privacy, free expression, confidentiality, consumer protections, and other human rights), (2) technologies that enables trust (encryption is the big issue of the day), (3) trusted networks, and (4) trust in ecosystem development (in other words, access to the decision and policy making process). A lack of resources in smaller countries, is a real problem. Technology requires a series of building blocks and an open standards environment would thus be most productive in further developing an open Internet.

Nathan White focused on the effects Internet fragmentation will continue to have on human rights, both social and economic. The Internet is naturally a powerful tool for free expression, free association, and access to information.  With its global reach, it amplifies those rights from an individual to a global level. Thus by definition, fragmenting the Internet harms human right. He made the point that no one who is trying to fragment the Internet is trying have greater human rights.

On the other hand, Mr. White cited the Facebook’s entry to China to illustrate how making cross-border data sharing mandatory also harms human rights. “Fragmentation” is understood in the human rights community as government action that is not beneficial towards human rights. So far, the United States has failed to lead on issues such as encryption and other countries, including China, are filling the vacuum. Going forward, it is important that policy makers frame discussions and incentives to bring people to the table with concerns for human rights. He further discussed how the Internet is a fragile thing, made possible because millions of people and organizations all came together to agree on a common set of standards because it is in our interest to have a global interoperability. He now worries that we are creating incentives that will break up the Internet. We don’t want people to walk away from the table, so the goal has to be greater multistakeholder participation to ensure that we are all making decisions together.

The panelists agreed that getting policy makers and other stake-holders to be well-informed is a challenge in itself. The panelists recommended pushing connectivity, capacity building via common understandings and vocabulary, and not being afraid of multilateral, cross-cutting institutions and processes. Questions raised by the audience raised concerns about building empathetic “human” elements into Internet governance and infrastructure and pointed out how the response to Internet problems such as providing networking for terrorists have been met with a “stop the bad things perspective” whereby complete national control has been taken for granted as a catchall solution. Regulating the connectivity of the Internet in many ways destroys the very purpose of the Internet: free or low cost high speed connectivity. Going forward, the main challenges will involve bringing together the very large and diverse group of stakeholders and developing common voices. Focusing on messaging the benefits of openness as well as the costs of fragmentation will likely have a positive influence. The panelists and many audience members are optimistic that this is happening and will continue to unfold.