EuroDig 2023 Internet Fragmentation

Table of contents

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Full session report

EuroDIG conference addresses the threat of internet fragmentation and the need for collaborative governance

At the EuroDIG conference held at Tampere University in Finland, the critical issue of internet fragmentation was brought to the forefront. Nadia, the session’s moderator, welcomed participants back from lunch and made housekeeping announcements, including an invitation to a reception at the City Hall and an opportunity for attendees to play a Steinway and Sons piano during breaks.

Andrew Sullivan, President and CEO of the Internet Society, delivered the first keynote address, focusing on the internet’s remarkable technical resilience and concerning political fragility. He explained that the internet’s robustness stems from its design principles: massive redundancy, an open network, and open protocols, which allow for a decentralised system without a central authority. However, Sullivan warned that the internet’s political fragility is increasingly threatened by policies that may lead to fragmentation, whether unintentionally or intentionally, driven by nationalistic goals, local interests, or economic concerns. These policies could jeopardise the internet’s global interoperability.

Sullivan emphasised the importance of internet impact assessments as a tool to predict policies’ effects on the internet’s infrastructure. He cited examples such as Canada’s Online News Act, which led to Meta and Google threatening to block Canadian news sites, and changes in South Korea’s network payment schemes, which resulted in a shift in peering from South Korea to Japan. These assessments are crucial for neutral, technical analysis and for holding governments and corporations accountable to prevent the erosion of the internet’s critical properties.

During the Q&A, an audience member from Youthdig inquired about the effectiveness of impact assessments. Sullivan reiterated their importance in policy-making, noting that while they have not completely prevented the adoption of harmful policies, they have successfully predicted and identified challenges before they occur.

The second keynote speaker, Lise Fuhr, Director General of the European Telecommunications Networks Operators Association (ETNO) and a member of the IGF leadership panel, spoke about the significance of an open and unfragmented internet. She referred to the EU’s open internet principles, which have provided certainty regarding content access rules since 2015. Fuhr highlighted that a fragmented internet could lead to weaker cybersecurity standards and that international policy dialogue is essential to prevent such fragmentation.

Fuhr also addressed the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance, calling for collective responsibility among the private sector, the technical community, civil society, and governments to advocate against attempts to fragment the internet. She stressed the importance of avoiding top-down protocols and maintaining the integrity of global networks, which are vital for universal connectivity and the digital and green transition.

The session concluded with a call to action to preserve the open internet and to continue advocating for the benefits of digital technologies. The speakers emphasised the need to stand against policies that threaten internet fragmentation and to defend the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. There was a consensus on the collective responsibility to protect the internet’s openness and accessibility, with a recognition that fragmentation is a complex issue that requires a coordinated, multi-layered approach. The EuroDIG session thus highlighted the critical role of impact assessments, the value of an open internet, and the necessity of a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance to combat the risks of internet fragmentation.

Session transcript

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back. I hope that you had a really nice lunch. It’s really, really lovely to be here at the beautiful Tampere University in Finland to be able to have Eurodig. My name is Nadia and I’m your host here in the main auditorium and joining you online connecting you with on-site is Serginia Balchenyte. So before we start, I would like to give a little bit of a housekeeping note. I hope that you’re thinking of joining us this evening for the reception in the City Hall. However, if you have a badge, which is handwritten, please go to the registration desk downstairs so you can get a City reception badge so we can make sure that you can come and join the fray. Also, what we would like to add is that we have the most beautiful Steinway and Sons piano on stage. If you would love to play during one of the breaks or tomorrow morning, please feel free to come and join us on stage and have a little bit of music. We would love to know what kind of music inspires you so you can be part of the fray. So without further ado, I would like to introduce main topic two, internet fragmentation. These sessions examines the risk of global interoperable networks splintering into isolated islands and to what extent it has already been realized. Avoiding fragmentation is professed as a common goal. But it may mean different things to different actors and at different layers of the network. Democratic governments try to close their information space for political reasons by all means, but even well-meaning efforts by democratic ones may have unintended consequences and lead to fragmentation. I would like to invite you to have a look and join us on screen is President and CEO of the Internet Society, Andrew Sullivan. Please give him a warm welcome.

Andrew Sullivan:
Thank you very much and good afternoon or good morning for me. I’m sorry that I can’t be there with you in person, but I was traveling for a different purpose and I couldn’t make it in time. In any case, it’s wonderful to be here. Unfortunately, I have, you know, to be the bearer of bad news, though, and it is not merely that the internet is fragmenting or that we are seeing splinter net or any other thing like that, because what these terms mean is something quite different. What it means is that we are losing the internet and we need to face that reality in order to confront it. The internet is technically astonishingly robust. We have made a reliable network out of unreliable parts. That is some kind of genius engineering effort. The way we did it was mostly through three things. One was massive redundancy. We use large numbers of different kinds of systems in order to interoperate with one another and provide the values of the internet. A second thing was an open network, a network that anybody can join by using a bunch of techniques. And those techniques, the third thing, are the open protocols that mean that you can join the internet and participate in it without any central coordination. There is no boss of the internet. This was an inspired technical decision, but it produces a paradox, and that is that the internet is politically fragile. It depends on the idea that everybody thinks that connecting to the internet, everybody who is participating in the internet at least, thinks that connecting to it and having everybody else connect on similar terms is a good thing. And that is the thing that is starting to fail us. So we see examples of this all over the world. We used to worry, of course, about authoritarian governments who didn’t like the internet because they were afraid of the reality that it allows people to speak freely. But now what we see are people who are attempting to fragment the internet, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, because of nationalistic goals, because of local interests, because of the kinds of prior entrenched economic interests that the internet threatens. And so what we see are policies that are chipping away at this smooth experience. Remember, underneath the hood, the internet is made up of all of these different networks participating on an even footing. That was exactly what we intended it to be. But the result, of course, is that you have this smooth experience because all of the protocols interoperate, and it looks like one thing. As we erode that experience, as we erode the ability of the common networks to work with one another, we start to lose the things that gave us the internet in the first place. And that really is what fragmentation is all about. This is actually the reason that the Internet Society has worked hard to create the impact assessments that we have. The point of internet impact assessments, just like environmental assessments before you build a road or a dam, impact assessments are intended to tell you whether you are going to damage the internet when you adopt one policy or another, when you decide that you want to make sure that some industry or other is unaffected by the internet and so forth. That’s the reason we have them, but it requires the rest of us to hold governments and corporations who are interested in that kind of fragmentation, it requires the rest of us to hold them to account, to perform those assessments of the activities that people are undertaking, and to try to make sure that we don’t lose the internet. The internet is not going to break in a single step. Every time I talk to somebody and they say, well, we did this last thing and it didn’t break the internet, I am unsurprised that it didn’t break the internet, because it is technically extremely robust. But the question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are drifting towards more connectivity, whether we are drifting towards an internet that works globally for everyone, or whether we are drifting away from it. Too many policies today are taking us in the wrong direction, and that is the sort of thing that each of us needs to make sure does not happen, because if it does, we will lose the internet for everyone. Thanks very much. I look forward to the discussion today.

Thank you very much, Mr. Sullivan. He has kindly agreed to take questions from the floor, so if you have any questions that you would like to address, please do come to the open mic here in front and ask your question. Please state your name and affiliation. What a room. Everybody is still processing from lunch. Please go ahead.

Hello. Hi, Andrew. It is Izan from Youthdig and also a former ISOC youth ambassador. One of the things that we mentioned in our youth messages that we presented yesterday was in fact impact assessments, because we recognize the potential for those to be used as a tool to make sure that we identify what the potential risks of a particular activity might be, and we think of it to be incredibly useful if there are other participants and stakeholders involved throughout that process. Could you give us some examples of impact assessments that have been used, especially the template that the one, the template that ISOC has made in a variety of different contexts and elaborate on whether they have had the intended effect that you would like them to have? Thank you.

Andrew Sullivan:
Thanks. So, on the final question, have they had the effect that we wanted? Well, not as much as we would like, because we continue to see these various bad policies being adopted in various places. So that’s always a risk. And yet we do see that the impact assessment tools allow us to identify challenges before they happen. So another, a number of examples of this are various impact assessments that are published on the Internet Society website, including two, I’m going to be cheeky and use two that are not from Europe, because we’ve also got some from Europe, but I don’t want to attack anybody’s favorite policy, so I’m going to use ones that are not from Europe. One example is a Canadian policy, I’m in Canada, and this law was Bill C-18, which is the Online News Act. The Online News Act is intended really to protect the news media in Canada by taking, you know, who are suffering from the lack of advertising that they used to depend upon, so that what they want to do is take money from two very large advertisers in particular, the targets really are Meta and Google, and the minister has said that openly, so I don’t feel that I’m naming anybody, you know, sort of out of turn. And the idea is you just transfer money from one group to another. But of course, Meta and Google have basically said, well, if this is what you want to do, we’re just going to block the news, the Canadian news sites on our platform. And they’ve certainly experimented with it, we don’t know what the long-term effect is going to be. But what was funny was to watch the political reaction to this, and to, you know, point out to people, look, we literally predicted that this was what was going to happen. It’s in the impact assessment, we said, well, this is probably one of the things that people will do. And of course they will, because, you know, if the alternatives are millions of dollars of liability and fines, or, you know, lose access to a market of maybe 35 million people, it’s fairly trivial for a corporation to make those kinds of decisions. So that’s one example where we were able to predict those things. Another example was the Korean decision to implement some changes to their network payment schemes between large content providers and the local ISPs. When we did the analysis there, what we said was, you know, if you’re going to try to impose these charges, people are going to, they’re going to abandon the internet exchange market there because you’re creating costs for them that, you know, they won’t have to bear out. elsewhere. And sure enough, the scheme went into effect, and almost overnight, peering moved from South Korea to Japan. And so what happened is the recipients of network data that were formerly peering in Japan, and therefore were able to get local access and increase the resilience of the system, and also were able to get low-latency access. Suddenly, their access was across submarine cables, so more expensive, also slower. And this was, again, predicted by our impact assessment. So we tried to do neutral technical analysis of what the consequences are for the critical properties of the internet. The entire point of these things is to say, here are critical properties of the internet, things that you need to have the internet at all. And here are other properties of the internet that are there to make sure that the internet thrives, that it’s open and globally connected and secure and trustworthy. What does it do to these properties of the network? What does it do to these properties of internetworking? Any policy. That’s all the toolkit is there to do. Anybody can use this toolkit and can perform their own analysis. It’s a little tricky. You have to go through the details of the policy, so you have to analyze the policy carefully. But once you’ve done that, it gives you the tool to be able to look at it independently and with a clear eye and recognize, oh, OK, somebody wants to do this thing, and maybe it is socially desirable or not, but what is that going to do to the internet? And it allows us to have a discussion about what the trade-offs are.

Thank you very much. There seems to be questions from the audience, but I’m afraid that we have to go on to the second keynote. We also have Lisa Feuer online, the director general of the European Telecommunications Networks Operators Association, ETNO, and a member of the IGF leadership panel joining us. But I would first like to thank Mr. Andrew Sullivan for joining us today. So I would like to ask you to give him a warm applause. Thank you. Lise Fuhr, thank you for joining us. Please, I give the floor to you.

Lise Fuhr:
Thank you and good afternoon. I’m in Denmark and I wanted to be there in Tampere with you in person, but unfortunately, unfortunately, I got COVID. So I send you all greetings instead and join online. Since I last spoke to the EuroDIG in 2019, many things has happened. You all know, we saw a global pandemic put our societies and also our economies to the test. We’re also right now witnessing a global war, a global aggression on European soil, actually putting political structures and democracies to the test and causing untold human anguish in Ukraine and beyond. And as we watch AI leaps forward on a daily basis, is this a harbinger of smarter societies or is it a threat? And throughout these epoch defining events, technology and the internet are present. So I’m delighted to be back here with you representing ETNO. And I’m also delighted to be here as a member of the IGF Leadership Panel, a new body established by the UN Secretary General. Following this session, there will be a dedicated workshop looking at some of the effects of internet fragmentation. But as ETNO and we are representing 70% of the investment in the telecom networks in Europe, we’re extremely taking the open internet very seriously. Since many years now, and we are publicly supporting EU open internet principles in the EU, their law since 2015, and they provide certainty to all sides, to the industry and civil society on what the rules of engagement are and when it comes to access to content. And what more goes without saying that a fragmented internet is a weaker and less secure internet and can result in lower cybersecurity standards. And at a time where cyber threats are increasing in number and in scale and in sophistication combined with the ever present use of the internet and all aspects of daily life, cybersecurity and open internet are fundamental. And as we discuss this topic today at EuroDIG, it’s very important that we know what we’re referring to. And Andrew took a part of opening this discussion. Internet fragmentation is not one single issue. It’s a description of numerous instances where access to the internet is somehow limited. And this can happen accidentally or on person. It can happen at the infrastructure layer or at the application layer. I think that was exactly also the words of Andrew. As a member of IGF leadership panel, I’m also pleased to be part of a team that provide high level input to internet governance and to be a strong voice of the IGF messages around the world. And IGF has exactly discussed internet fragmentation because it is a fundamental issue. And we believe it’s key in internet governance. While we see regulatory policy and commercial approaches will differ around the world, active coordination across international boundaries is vital to ensure that fragmented approaches do not threaten the global reach and interoperability of the internet. So we need the integrity of global networks that require international policy dialogue as we have today and continue discussion on basic principles. We do connectivity as ethno-business. So for us, it’s important connectivity is there. And to be connected is not only to be connected in order to have your businesses or public services, but it’s also to be connected as a citizen and also to have the best infrastructure you have there today. So connectivity in Europe, we see as part of the basis of the twin digital and also green transition. So if we look at it, connectivity doesn’t happen overnight. It needs the cooperation of governments, public funds, private sector, deployers of connectivity. All is essential to make sure funding and infrastructure rollout is going exactly to those places and communities that need it. So if we look at Europe, it’s important to have investors. And this is also important globally. So investors need to have certainty that they’re making a good investment and connectivity needs meaningful, that needs to be meaningful, cannot bring risks such as undue government interference, the risk of network shutdowns or top-down mandating of standards and protocols. And that’s also why we as ethno support an open internet and we reject attempts to fragment the internet, including using top-down protocols. This is bad for investment, but it’s also bad for achieving universal connectivity. I see times is running really fast. So I’m gonna do a few shortcuts here, but I want to say that in IGF in Addis Abeba, there was one important outcome and that is internet fragmentation is not just something that happens in the physical layers of the internet, it happens also in other layers. And I think network plays a crucial role, but we need to protect and defend the rights and user experience of citizens and end users. So we need to look into also what the content providers put in the internet and the impact of, for example, autoplayed or video-based advertising, and also how to have a proper functioning of the internet. We look at data volumes that keeps growing. We need to make sure that this capacity increases is covered, but we also need to make sure that it is as efficient as possible. So it’s good for network economies. It has a positive impact on sustainability footprints, but also we need to remember that the internet exists to create value for users and it should be done in a responsible way. So anything on internet openness, avoiding internet fragmentation is not a simple question with a simple answer, and it’s not one single party responsible for ensuring it. It is our collective responsibility to all of us. And I want to finish this by saying, I think there is another very important aspect of keeping the internet open and accessible and unfragmented, and that is why you’re here today. I think we need to avoid top-down protocols. We need to maintain the strong multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. We need more than ever to collaborate and cooperate among the various stakeholders involved in the internet. We need the private sector, we need the technical community, we need the civil society, and we need the governments. And we must avoid that the level of internet governance decisions, at the level of internet governance, that decisions are limited, for example, to intergovernmental processes alone. And I know I’m preaching for the choir here, I know you’re all convinced, but I think it’s important we stand up and defend this model. And I’d like to call to action because internet fragmentation is not new, it’s been a threat for some time, and indeed, it’s not a simple issue to define, but we need to continue to advocate for the transformative power of the internet, for global cooperation, for the education, societal and economic benefits, which digital technologies brings. So we need to make sure to speak up against attempts to fragment the internet wherever they may be. And let’s remember that it’s in the power of the many internet players to take up their role in protecting the open internet. So fragmentation just don’t happen over a night and it doesn’t happen as one part of the internet and one of the layers. But I do have faith that today’s multi-stakeholder bodies are the key to defending the internet as we know it, the internet as we develop it, as we preserve it, and as we use it more and more each day to the benefit of all. Sorry for being a bit long, but thank you.


Andrew Sullivan

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Lise Fuhr

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