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Internet or Splinternet?

The importance of the Internet – to individuals, societies, companies, and economies – cannot be overstated. But, as a recent report by the Global Commission on Internet Governance shows, it is at risk of costly fragmentation, as national governments establish control over the parts of it within their borders.

CAMBRIDGE – Who owns the Internet? The answer is no one and everyone. The Internet is a network of networks. Each of the separate networks belongs to different companies and organizations, and they rely on physical servers in different countries with varying laws and regulations. But without some common rules and norms, these networks cannot be linked effectively. Fragmentation – meaning the end of the Internet – is a real threat.

Some estimates put the Internet’s economic contribution to global GDP as high as $4.2 trillion in 2016. A fragmented “splinternet” would be very costly to the world, but that is one of the possible futures outlined last month in the report of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, chaired by former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. The Internet now connects nearly half the world’s population, and another billion people – as well as some 20 billion devices – are forecast to be connected in the next five years.

But further expansion is not guaranteed. In the Commission’s worst-case scenario, the costs imposed by the malicious actions of criminals and the political controls imposed by governments would cause people to lose trust in the Internet and reduce their use of it.

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