U.S. domain deregulation could fragment World Wide Web into ‘Splinternet’

Some governments ponder decoupling from World Wide Web and create an intranet

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ISTANBUL — When Turkish communications minister Lutfi Elvan told daily newspaper Hurriyet last week that he was planning to “detach” Turkey from the global Internet, he quickly became a target of ridicule around the World Wide Web.

“The man is clearly an idiot,” Andrew Duff, a member of the European Parliament, tweeted in one derisive response.

Others wondered how such a move — to create a homegrown “ttt.” protocol to replace “www.” — was even possible for Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. ally.

“They would probably prefer to have such an intranet [local online network] nationwide like North Korea, but I don’t think they can pull that off,” said Erkan Saka, an assistant professor of communications at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “They are still part of the global economy, after all.”

Even so, such plans illustrate how certain governments, frustrated by the “Wild West” of the Internet, are taking advantage of efforts to regulate it as President Obama relinquishes U.S. oversight of domain names that form the basis of websites and virtual networks.

Last month, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is under the Commerce Department, announced that it would lessen the government’s role in overseeing website addresses. The nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers will help guide the transition.

Critics say the administration is ceding control to foreign countries.

Although few nations besides North Korea can afford to cut themselves completely from the Internet, digital rights advocates caution that Mr. Elvan’s comments reflect how governments are threatening to chill online liberties.

At stake are the innovation and free exchange of information that have transformed global culture and business over the past two decades.

“In the next two years, there will be decisions of sweeping proportions about the future of Internet,” said Gigi Alford, senior program officer at Freedom House, an independent human rights watchdog based in Washington.

“One serious threat is the fragmentation of the global Internet into national ‘spInternets,’” Ms. Alford said. “If users in different countries have different experiences of the Internet, then we’re replicating the old analog way of living as a fragmented global community, with all the analog inequalities and restrictions.”

Analysts point to the Great Firewall of China and Iran’s Halal Internet as examples of governments’ walled-off virtual spaces that block access to thousands of international sites in favor of tightly controlled domestic versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Though Turkey lacks such technological sophistication, its crackdown on social media has intensified over the past months after leaks showing apparent government corruption appeared on Twitter and YouTube.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the two services blocked and threatened to “eradicate Twitter” to show the international community “the power of the Turkish republic.”

But these moves are meant mainly to intimidate social media users, Mr. Saka said.

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