April 21, 2016 | by Wayne Smith

Internet Fragmentation: Current Examples (Part III)

This article will address a few examples of Internet fragmentation for each of the three major categories defined in our previous articles of this series. These examples fall under the already defined technical, governmental and commercial forms of fragmentation. Remember: These are only a few examples of the more than 30 examples currently being studied.

Our beloved “open, interoperable and unified” Internet is the product of an amazing voluntary, not-for-profit endeavor. The Internet has no central government or all-controlling organization. It is, however, the result of efforts of thousands of people in not-for-profit sponsor organizations that had a clear objective and who insisted on a limited, regulating role of any sovereign government. To this day, the Internet is dependent upon these not-for-profit organizations to develop technical standards and manage the Domain Name System (DNS). The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) stands out as the primary technical standards organization, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages the DNS.

Fragmentation at the DNS

The DNS is the system that translates easy to remember names into abstract numerical IP addresses. This system sits at the heart of the Internet, and it is subject to several potential forms of fragmentation. In fact, a primary function of ICANN is to ensure that routers connect to unique DNS root servers throughout the entire Internet. However, any ISP, government or network operator can create their own root servers that are not consistent with the ICANN guidelines. In this case, a user seeking a specific DNS address may be redirected to a different server with the same address, and the user would have no way of knowing this happened. This is a type of intentional, technical fragmentation that is undesirable and could create major problems. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

ISPs can allow a user to create a VPN through its network, using an encrypted tunnel, to a destination network. This enables the user have a separate and private channel through the public Internet. The user’s objective of setting up a VPN is to protect its communications and limit access to its network assets. VPNs limit the ability of governmental organizations from surveillance activities. In response to this, many governments prohibit companies from establishing VPNs in their countries or by blocking VPN protocols. Governments blocking VPN traffic is currently a common, intentional technical fragmentation practice that could have considerable impact.

Content Censorship

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) constitution grants any sovereign nation the right to limit or block any communications that it determines to be illegal, indecent or a national security concern. This gives each nation considerable liberty to block, filter or limit any information it wants. Some believe that the end result disrupts the open Internet concept. Specific actions practiced by governments include filtering and blocking servers, domain names, IP addresses, key words, specific websites, bloggers, launching attacks at websites, social media sites, etc. These actions are governmentally fostered actions that impose technical limits to the Internet. It is common for nations that are trying to protect their national character or social norms to impose these limitations. This form of governmental fragmentation is common, widespread and intentional.

Localization of Data

Another governmental-fostered fragmentation trend is the localization of data. Many nation states have passed legislation to limit the movement and storage of certain data to specific national geographies as well as limiting the companies that can process this data. This encourages this data to be routed within specific territories, processed at certain locations or by certain companies of national origin. These actions attempt to limit the amount and nature of trans-border communications for control and security purposes. Similar to the prior example, these activities are intentional, widespread, and they can have major impact on Internet openness.

Peering Arrangements

Peering arrangements are essentially agreements between ISPs who own and/or maintain Internet backbones. The basic agreement is to exchange data between different ISPs without the exchange of money. It is basically a trade for like or similar services for most of the larger ISPs. In addition, some peering agreements between large and small ISPs may exchange money depending upon the amount of traffic that moves across each network. The concern is that this relationship can break down depending on the motivations of the different ISPs. This breakdown may result in certain ISPs routing data around other networks in a less efficient manner than with the old peering system. The would be categorized as a form of commercial fragmentation. Although not widespread today, there are no restrictions from it happening. Some believe the impact could be very significant.

Walled Gardens

Almost everyone visits and has accounts on one or more social and commercial networks such as Twitter, Facebook, eBay and Amazon. Search engines typically do not have the ability to index these environments without being logged in. This walled garden environment gives the walled garden provider considerable control over its member’s security. It enables the environment to lock-in its member while locking-out non-members. It also creates opportunities for the service provider to utilize the controlled environment for strategic digital marketing. These walled-in environments basically foster a user experience with unique information between the walled-garden and the rest of the Internet. Of course this practice of commercial fragmentation is intentional with a high impact, but its desirability depends upon one’s perspective.

Conclusion

The national debate about net neutrality led us to the larger world of Internet fragmentation. Net neutrality is only one type of more than 30 types of Internet fragmentation. This series of articles has only briefly and superficially touched on some of the ways to define, view and analyze fragmentation. We encourage you to read more about this topic since it will be with us for the foreseeable future. Although fragmentation will not degrade the Internet in the near term, it certainly could in the long term. The future openness of the Internet will depend upon the continued human spirit to openly collaborate and share information on the Internet that we know today.