Is the Internet Fragmenting, Part 1

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Recent developments related to the Internet have prompted alarming questions about whether it is fragmenting. They include a diverse set of technical, economic, and policy 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. Examples include a rise in DNS content filtering, deployment of distinct IPv4 and IPv6 networks, introduction of zero rating services, and an increasing number of laws related to data localization and restriction of cross-border data flow. Taken together, they raise an overarching concern over whether the global Internet is moving from a universal system to one characterized by various types of fragmentation that are caused either by intended or unintended consequences of technical, commercial, and/or political decisions taken without full consideration of their potential impact.

The Greater Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-DC) held a panel discussion on Tuesday, May 10th that brought together policy stakeholders, including government, the technical community, civil society, industry, and other organizations to consider these issues more fully. Panelists will discuss the different types of Internet fragmentation, their associated technical, economic, and political impacts and when fragmentation may be desirable or problematic. Additionally, the panelists examined how these should be taken into consideration in policy making.

Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda

Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, U.S. Department of State


Kathryn Brown – President and Chief Executive Officer, Internet Society

Dr. Laura DeNardis – Professor and Associate Dean, School of Communication at American University; Director of Research, Global Commission on Internet Governance

Danil Kerimi – Head of Digital Economy, World Economic Forum

Paul Mitchell – Senior Director of Technology Policy, Microsoft

Jeremy West – Senior Policy Analyst, Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


On May 10, 2016, Microsoft and The Greater Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-DC) held a panel discussion on “Is the Internet fragmenting?” with Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda, Kathryn Brown, Dr. Laura DeNardis, Danil Kerimi, and Jeremy West. Paul Mitchell moderated the event, bringing out the different perspectives on Internet fragmentation, its consequences, and how to frame and address the phenomenon. As this is the first dialogue in a series of four on Internet fragmentation, it provided an overview of the issue and set the context for the upcoming events, which will cover the technical, commercial, and political dimensions of Internet fragmentation in more detail.

As the keynote speaker, Ambassador Sepulveda started the conversation by stating that an “open Internet is the backbone of the digital economy.” According to McKinsey, the Internet contributes to 5-9% of GDP in developed countries. These benefits may be threatened by fragmentation measures that include, for example, restriction of trans-border flow of data andvarious national limits to control the Internet within their borders. According to McKinsey, data flow restrictions can lead to 250-450 billion loss of GDP growth in US dollars. In order to support the open and interoperable Internet, we should close the digital divide gap by carrying out the Global Connect Initiative; solving cyber issues, such as insecurity of the Internet; making policy discussion more inclusive; introducing clear definitions; and gathering data to demonstrate the importance of the open Internet. Finally, Ambassador Sepulveda underlined that Internet fragmentation requires a holistic approach and constant vigilance due to its complex structure.

Kathryn Brown explained that there were two major sources of fragmentation: lack of the world’s access to the Internet, and security problems that result in trust issues in the Internet. The solution lies in constantly proving to the world that the multistakeholder approach is the best apprach to Internet governance. Advocates of the open Internet should demonstrate to their opponents that a non-fragmented Internet benefits not only the world economy at large, but also every state locally.

According to Dr. Laura DeNardis, the Global Commission on Internet Governance is working on policy recommendations that would move the world away from fragmentation and closer to universality through eliminating physical (differences in access rates), logical (IPv4 vs. IPv6), content (censorship), and exogenous (data localization requirements) barriers. Also, Dr. DeNardis pointed out that fragmentation was not only about economic issues but also about civil liberties, freedom of expression, access to knowledge, and privacy.

Danil Kerimi summarized the approach to Internet fragmentation proposed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its white paper “Internet Fragmentation: an Overview.” The WEF’s methodology framed Internet fragmentation into technological, government, and commercial elements, allowing experts to look at the complex issue of fragmentation in various dimensions. Mr. Kerimi agrees that this methodology is only one of many and may not be perfect. The WEF paper is part of its Future of the Internet Project that is aimed at bringing together various stakeholders to address cyber issues and to raise public awareness of Internet-related matters.

Jeremy West explained that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is interested in Internet fragmentation because the Organization recognized the link between social welfare and economic growth on the one hand and Internet openness on the other. However, the OECD’s interest in Internet is not new. In 2008 the OECD published “The Seoul Declaration for The Future of The Internet Economy” followed by “OECD Council Recommendation on Principles for Internet Policy Making” in 2011. Mr. West suggested that the best way to fight fragmentation was to provide advocates of various fragmentary policies and technologies with qualitative and quantitative evidence that would demonstrate the importance of an open Internet for the world economy.

Ambassador Sepulveda provided more details on the Global Connect Initiative, a joint effort of the State Department and the World Bank aimed at addressing the problem of digital connectivity by bringing stakeholders together and raising awareness that connectivity is a necessity for sustainable economic development, not a luxury. The Ambassador also stressed that every sovereign state would always try to impose local rules on the Internet; however, sovereignty should not be an excuse to violate basic human rights online.

During the Q&A session, the audience raised questions about China and Russia, terrorism and Internet, the IANA transition, open government partnership, technological fragmentation, privacy vs. fragmentation, and responsibility for an open Internet. All the panelists expressed their positive attitude towards the future of the Internet and agreed that the problem of fragmentation could be solved through supporting the multistakeholder approach, increasing cooperation and collaboration, regaining public trust, gathering evidence of the benefits of an open Internet, and ensuring transition to IPv6 as soon as possible with all actors involved.

At the end of the discussion, the panelists offered a few closing remarks. Laura DeNardis urged the audience to think about the government use of the Internet (backdoors, censorship, local domain names, etc.) that could lead to its fragmentation. Jeremy West encouraged people to keep an eye on the OECD Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy: Innovation, Growth and Social Prosperity on June 21-23, 2016 when the OECD will release their report on the economic impact of cross-border data flow. Danil Kerimi once again underlined the importance of being vigilant to avoid fragmentation. Kathryn Brown advised the audience to keep innovating and the importance of maintaining the underlying principles of the Internet. Ambassador Sepulveda warned everyone that there was no need in ceasing engagement of those who disagree with advocates of the open Internet; on the contrary, we should promote more engagement and inclusiveness.

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