Originally Published 2014-10-05 00:00:00 Published on Oct 05, 2014
Long before Snowden, it was suggested that the best way forward was to abandon 'the Internet' and embrace multiple internets, essentially privatising networks. The splintering of the Internet is one possible consequence of viewing Internet rights through the prism of private property.
Privacy Through Fragmentation?

Earlier this year, in response to a request by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) released a report on the "Right to Privacy in the Digital Age". The resolution in the GA which spawned the report was introduced by Germany and Brazil; two countries that felt the fallout of Snowden's NSA leaks heavily.

International politics in any forum involves a good deal of disagreement and divergences of opinions, which can make decision-making and even agenda-setting very difficult tasks. This is particularly true in the case of Internet governance ? there is no global consensus on the best model or way forward. In this context, a defence of the right to privacy being mounted at the world's highest political forum surely speaks to the issue's importance. The fact that, despite opposition, the resolution went through with strong anti-surveillance language, too, speaks volumes.

Several countries are embracing the concept of protecting privacy by imposing their national laws on the Internet, even if that will lead to separate networks for separate countries. Russia has already passed a law stating that data on Russian citizens must be stored within Russian borders, and Brazil has taken steps to ensure that information about its citizens will be subject to Brazilian law. In Europe, the idea of a Schengen-only network is being debated. China maintains its 'Great Firewall' to control Internet traffic.

Mentioning the idea of separate, closed networks, even for ostensibly noble aims such as protecting privacy or guarding critical infrastructure, is sure to raise the spectre of balkanization ? the hypothetical scenario where the Internet mimics the political upheaval and splintering of the Balkans starting in the 19th Century.

The term is problematic in its ambiguity, having been used both by those who support a fragmented Internet and those who fear it. The latter forms a larger (or at least more vocal) camp, evoking visions of a future where the Internet as we know it is dead, and all the knowledge capacity and intercultural learning that could have been has come to nothing. Perhaps in an age where everything is increasingly connected (Internet of things hyperlink), a little disconnect could be a good thing.

Another form of fragmentation is the proliferation of location-based services. While those who oppose fragmentation of the Internet wish for it to be open and borderless, there are many features which are already restricted. A prominent example of this is television programming via the Internet. Copyright concerns, among others, means that popular services transmitting TV programming online are location-specific, including but not limited to: Hulu in the United States, BBC iPlayer in the United Kingdom, and the Apple store, locking users in to the countries in which they register.

One facet of privacy that is being undermined by developments in Internet governance is anonymity. There has been a push recently to link digital identities with 'real' identities - the benefits being integrated systems providing better, tailored services. There are dangers, however, in integrating databases. India continues to pursue Aadhaar, its Unique Identification system - which has serious privacy implications considering it links biometric data, bank details, and other personal information. The system has been widely and strongly criticised for the lack of inbuilt privacy protection.

Anonymity online is often associated with, if not criminal elements, then antisocial ones. There is an idea that online, unidentifiable and thus unburdened by accountability, behaviour will spiral accordingly.ᅠ This disregards the plentiful advantages of privacy, if not total anonymity online, including enabling freedom of expression and the potential for whistle-blowing. Even the collection of so-called innocuous data, metadata, when voluminous enough, is practically the same as content data, and can be deadly. It can be abused, and past experience suggests that since it can be, it will be.

The ruling by the European Court of Justice on the 'right to be forgotten', allowing people to remove certain links about themselves from Google searches, could be viewed as a step forward in this, allowing individuals to control the narrative of their online lives. Defenders point out that removing a particular link from Google searches does not get rid of the webpage itself, only the Google link to the page. However, given Google's enormous share of the online search market, for many it is the source of content, not just an index of content.

This may be a boon for some individuals ? victims of revenge porn, or those with convictions that they are not otherwise required to disclose ? but what about those with more venal motives? Google has removed links relating to the behaviour of individuals in office (corporate and political), including a former Merrill Lynch CEO, and a politician regarding his behaviour during a previous term. There are already companies which offer to 'manage reputations' by controlling what information appears where, creating a business of being forgotten. This has led to concerns that the right to be forgotten will erase information which is in the public interest. This is part of the reason that Google is going through each removal request, and judging each case on its merits.

Court orders may force Google to change search results for country-specific Google pages. In countries where Google is not blocked, the same search query may yield different results; this is another form of fragmentation.

Long before Snowden, it was suggested that the best way forward was to abandon 'the Internet' and embrace multiple internets - essentially privatising networks, allowing customisation and different types of internet experiences. The splintering of the Internet is one possible consequence of viewing Internet rights through the prism of private property. As mentioned earlier, it was the push to enforce copyright that led to certain location-based restrictions. It is not such a stretch to imagine privacy and personal data being protected in the same way, with rights being enforced on such a basis.


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