April 1, 2016 | by Wayne Smith

Internet Fragmentation: An Introduction (Part I)

Our recent articles about “net neutrality and the open Internet” address the debate about a single form of Internet fragmentation. Some believe that the “open, interoperable and unified” Internet is being threatened. In this article, we will introduce the general concepts and the trending forces that are beginning to fragment the Internet.

Common questions from various industry stakeholders:

Will the future Internet be characterized by degrees of openness where it is increasingly divided by blockages, restrictions and artificial barriers between multiple segmented Internets?What will be the effects on the user if these challenges and threats come to fruition?Is the open Internet subject to the same forces of entropy as other man-made structures and systems?Will it be subject to deterioration and balkanization?

For Context As most of us know, the original objective of the Internet was to create a resource sharing, worldwide communications network that would facilitate collaboration and enhance the advancement of science and public knowledge. Each user would have equal access and the ability to have unencumbered freedom to express ideas and information. The Internet was conceived to be a collection of separate computer networks that operated on a common set of computer languages and communications technologies and protocols that appeared to the user as a unified network. Every device should be able to freely exchange data with every other device that wants to receive that data.

Some influencers state that any action that would interfere or impede this free flow of data between Internet users is qualified as a form of fragmentation. By definition, Internet fragmentation is the implementation of any technical, legal or commercial action that would divide or fragment the perception of an equal access, open and unified network. In terms of UX, a fragmented Internet means one user’s experience on one fragment of the Internet may be entirely different from another user’s experience on a different fragment.

General Categories of Fragmentation There are more than 30 different forms that have been defined as fragmentation. They are divided into three separate categories. These are technical fragmentation, governmental fragmentation and commercial fragmentation.

Technical fragmentation includes technological conditions that impede the infrastructure from efficiently interoperating and exchanging information as designed. They address concepts such as translating network addresses, compatibility and translations between IPv4 and IPv6, routing corruption, VPNs, TOR (anonymous networks) and dark web implementations, blocking generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs), alternative DNS roots and false authentication certificates.

Governmental fragmentation arises in the form of sovereign governmental policies and actions that interfere with or limit creating, accessing or distributing certain information. Examples of governmental fragmentation include blocking, interfering with or limiting the movement of certain transnational data; attacks on national networks; blocking access to certain information, websites, social networks or tools; and rerouting schemes to limit flows of data.

Commercial fragmentation includes various business practices that prevent or constrain specific uses of the Internet to create, distribute or access information. Examples of these actions include changes to peer-to-peer interconnection agreements, blocking and throttling, walled gardens, implementing new standards that are not compatible with IoT and, in some cases, actions to block data for the sake of intellectual property protection.

The Forces of Change There are a multitude of potential parties that can force changes on the Internet. These include societal forces, market changes, technological innovations, end-user preferences, manufacturers, ISPs, industry associations, international interest organizations, standards organizations and national governments -each with their own particular legal systems. The current not-for-profit voluntary organizations that manage the Internet such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) are certainly subject to these pressures.

Some critics have actually praised these organizations for acting aside from their very different perspectives, biases and objectives, to be able to collectively maintain the original vision of an open Internet as well as they have.

Next The next article in this 3-part series will briefly address some analytical tools and models that researchers use to identify and evaluate fragmentation. The third and last article of this series will briefly address several different examples of fragmentation and assess their impact on the Internet experience.