“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” said Internet pioneer John Gilmore in a 1993 Time magazine article about a then-ungoverned place called “cyberspace.” How times have changed.
In April, Sri Lankan authorities blocked its citizens’ access to social media sites like Facebook and YouTube following a major terrorist attack. Such censorship, once considered all but inconceivable, is now commonplace in a growing number of countries.
Russia, for instance, approved an “Internet sovereignty” law in May that gives the government broad power to dictate what its citizens can see online. And China is not just perfecting its “Great Firewall,” which blocks such things as searches for “Tiananmen Square” and the New York Times, but is seeking to export its top-down version of the web to countries throughout Southeast Asia.
This phenomenon, colloquially called “splinternet,” whereby governments seek to fence off the World Wide Web into a series of national Internets, isn’t new. The term, also known as cyberbalkanization, has been around since the 1990s. But lately the rupturing has accelerated, as companies censor their sites to comply with national rules and governments blot out some sites entirely.
“It feels like a chunk of the Internet is gone or different. People feel the Internet is not as we knew it,” says Venkat Balasubramani, who runs a cyber law firm in Seattle.