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Splinternet: Philosophies of connectivity

Latin was the dominant language in the Roman Empire and helped transform a variety of different
cultures and people under the leadership of the Roman standard. If it was the process of industrial and
agricultural modernisation that turned peasants into Frenchmen, it was Latin that turned the people of
Gaul (modern-day France), Gallia Belgica (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg), Italia (modern-
day Italy) and Hispania (Spain and Portugal) into Romans. However, this universal European
language would splinter and fracture into different languages following the fall of the western Roman
empire in 395 AD. Out of the crumbling decline of Latin, it would produce the five romance
languages used today: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian. In the same way, the
internet once was seen as universal, able to usher in values of transparency, openness and connectivity
to our global village. It was thought that it would shine the flame of freedom so brightly that there
would be nowhere for shadowy regimes to survive, that there would not be a place left that the voices
of the people couldn’t be heard and that old tribal animosity between nations would give way to an
international order of cooperation. However, just like Latin, the internet has fractured and given way
to different philosophies and ideological perspectives. It was Eric Schmidt, the ex-chairman of
Google, that termed this new reality as the ‘splinternet’.

The internet has undeniably transformed the world into a web of connectivity. It was seen to be the
vaccine to inter-state competition by binding us so closely together that no one would have the space
to raise a fist. Additionally, it seemed to confirm Immanuel Kant’s claim in ‘perpetual peace’ that
economic interdependence promotes peace. However, the philosophy of the internet has splintered,
with different actors having contrasting visions for the governing principles of the internet. In the sun-
kissed landscape of Silicon Valley, the internet was built with the promise of openness, transparent
standards and accessible technology. This philosophy is in line with internationalists and globalists
that look to a world free from the concept of the nation-state. In contrast, many regimes that do not
value the constructs of openness and transparency decided to raise firewalls that censored content,
monitored people’s online footprint and would codify populations based on their activity. This
attitude is being scaled to facilitate mass surveillance that will identify and categorise people under
the banner of social cohesion. Then there is the commercial attitude to the internet that places data as
a harvestable tradable commodity and identifies users as susceptible sponges for advertisement. This
philosophy views the internet less as a vehicle for openness and transparency but as the shuttle for
consumerism. Additional to this, the private data philosophy is in a constant battle with the
commercial philosophy. This philosophy looks to protect citizen’s data, reduce the power of
commercial actors and set up a safety net to shield internet users from trolls, controversial opinions
and extremist content. Consequently, this philosophy looks at the internet as something that needs to
be edited, constrained and curbed. Lastly, there are those who wish to weaponize the internet, through
disinformation, hacking and polarising debates. Therefore, these five different approaches to the
internet all have different philosophies in how they determine what the internet’s governing principles
should be and how it should operate. To summarise, there is the open philosophy, the censored, the
commercial, the private data and the weaponised philosophy to the internet. The battle of these
approaches will be felt over the next decade, the victor will set the rules for the future.

In conclusion, the internet remains one of the greatest gifts in improving world connectivity,
communication and conflict resolution. However, its once universal values have splintered into five
competing approaches that will jostle for intellectual supremacy in the future. The philosophy that
comes out on top will determine the rights of billions of people and will set the foundation for how we
view society. Do we value the individual over the collective? Will we choose commercialism over
privacy rights? Will we choose to view the internet as the ultimate peacekeeping mechanism or will
we allow it to be weaponised? The way we answer these questions will have profound impacts on our
future and our history. For those who control the future, control history.

By Henri Willmott