Internet Fragmentation is the idea that the Internet may be in danger of splitting into a series of cyberspace segments, thus endangering its connectivity.
During the 2015 World Economic Forum, Internet fragmentation was noted as one of the primary concerns facing the future of the internet, due to trends in technological developments, government policies, and commercial practices. Nonetheless, there was no widespread consensus as to its nature or scope.
The launch of the World Economic Forum's multi-year Future of the Internet Initiative (FII) considers Internet fragmentation as one of the primary topics warranting exploration, in the context of the FII's Governance on the Internet project.
In the early 2020s, the issue of Internet fragmentation surfaced again, this time primarily with a focus on managing jurisdiction and legislative issues as governments try to regulate Data Privacy, big tech's reach, CSAM, cybercrime, and DNS Abuse without understanding the technical aspects of Internet Governance or trying to harmonize their initiatives first.
Nature of Fragmentation
Working definitions are proposed for three forms of fragmentation:
- Technical Fragmentation: Conditions in the underlying infrastructure that impede the ability of systems to fully interoperate and exchange data packets and of the Internet to function consistently at all end points.
- Governmental Fragmentation: Government policies and actions that constrain or prevent certain uses of the Internet to create, distribute, or access information resources.
- Commercial Fragmentation: Business practices that constrain or prevent certain uses of the Internet to create, distribute, or access information resources.
In each case, fragmentation may vary greatly according to a number of dimensions or attributes. Four primary ones include:
- Occurrence: Whether a type of fragmentation exists or is merely a potential
- Intentionality: Whether fragmentation is the result of deliberate action or an unintended consequence
- Impact: Whether fragmentation is deep, structural and configurative of large swaths of activity or even the Internet as a whole, or rather more shallow, malleable and applicable to a narrowly bounded set of processes, transactions and actors
- Character: Whether fragmentation is generally positive, negative, or neutral
Types of Fragmentation
Internet addressing, interconnection, naming, and security are primary issue areas leading to technical fragmentation. Within these categories, 12 kinds of fragmentation are identified:
- Network Address Translation
- IPv4 and IPv6 incompatibility and the dual-stack requirement
- Routing corruption
- Firewall protections
- Virtual private network isolation and blocking
- TOR "onion space" and the "dark web"
- Internationalized Domain Name technical errors
- Blocking of new gTLDs
- Private name servers and the split-horizon DNS
- Segmented Wi-Fi services in hotels, restaurants, etc.
- Possibility of significant alternate DNS roots
- Certificate authorities producing false certificates
Barrier between nations or national segmentation that could create barriers in the way the internet functions. Six primary issues include content and censorship; e-commerce and trade; national security; privacy and data protection; data localization; and fragmentation as an overarching national strategy.
Within these categories, 10 kinds of fragmentation are identified:
- Filtering and blocking websites, social networks or other resources offering undesired contents
- Attacks on information resources offering undesired contents
- Digital protectionism blocking users' access to and use of key platforms and tools for electronic commerce
- Centralizing and terminating international interconnection
- Attacks on national networks and key assets
- Local data processing and/or retention requirements
- Architectural or routing changes to keep data flows within a territory
- Prohibitions on the transborder movement of certain categories of data
- Strategies to construct “national Internet segments” or "cybersovereignty"
- International frameworks intended to legitimize restrictive practices
Fragmentation under commercial practices often pertain to the organization of specific markets and digital spaces. Five main issue areas include peering and standardization; network neutrality; walled gardens; geo-localization and geo-blocking; and infrastructure-related intellectual property protection.
Within these categories, 10 kinds of fragmentation are identfied:
- Potential changes in interconnection agreements
- Potential proprietary technical standards impeding interoperability in the IoT
- Blocking, throttling, or other discriminatory departures from network neutrality
- Walled gardens
- Geo-blocking of content
- Potential use of naming and numbering to block content for the purpose of intellectual property protection
- Internet Fragmentation: An Overview, WEForum.org. Published 2016 January 23. Retrieved 2016 April 18.
- Internet Fragmentation, WEForum.org. Published 2016 January. Retrieved 2016 April 18.
- Patrik Faltstrom and Chris Mondini, Fragmentation of the Internet? – Technical and political aspects, Nordic Forum January 2022