Splinternet: the fracturing of the web

How does internet connection look around the world?

They say that Internet unites people, which is difficult to argue against.  Users of the Internet can call their relatives in Europe, find a groupmate from another state in Facebook or apply for an exotic job somewhere on Cayman Islands – all at any time of the day. It sometimes seems that borders between countries and regions are slowly dissolving.

The notion of online freedom and independence on the Internet started to show signs of stress and decay over a decade ago. It’s also possible that the World Wide Web will come apart and we all will have a ‘Splinternet’ instead of Internet. This unusual name is used to denominate a number of local area networks, divided by the geographical borders of different countries and regulated by local laws.

Even now you can find enough examples of how the Splinternet may look. It’s possible due to a number of reasons.  These reasons vary from political right through to geographical.  Below, we’ll take a look at some of the main reasons behind the slow fracturing of the WWW.

The Great Wall of China 2.0

To see the Internet under strict governmental control you have to go to China. If you want to access Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, read blogs running on Blogspot and WordPress or watch a video on Vimeo, you’ll have to bypass the great firewall of China. Chinese people do have partial access to Wikipedia however, the articles that they’re not able to see are politically sensitive in China.


There are local analogues for all these websites. Those few people who want to reach beyond the firewall and access original web portals have to use a VPN. Usually the Chinese search for Facebook or YouTube only if they have used them before. And this primarily applies to the people who studied abroad, have foreign friends and relatives, those who need these sites for work as English tutors or software developers. Lots of Chinese people say that the nationwide firewall is quite useful and the majority of Chinese people are not ready to surf the Internet unprotected.


However, one problem with using VPN’s in China is speed.  Virtual Private Networks in China can be very slow. To a large extend this sloth-like pace can be explained by the fact that there are only three gateways, which can let users out to the global web. They are located northward, near Beijing, in the centre of the country in Shanghai and southward, in Guangzhou. As traffic passes through these gateways, packets are “mirrored” and monitored by the government, which also slows the process down. However slow this Internet is, it pales in significance to the North Korean ‘internet.’

North Korea: just a humble LAN-party

A select few North Korean citizens have special access to the North Korean internet, however using the term “internet” is used loosely. They have a local network, which is proudly named Kwangmyong (it can be translated as “bright”) and it has no physical connection to the World Wide Web.

The only way to access Kwangmyong is to use dial-up lines. It is estimated that there are no more than a few thousand sites on the intranet, and their content is created by the Korean Computer Centre, which translates selected scientific articles form the Internet adding some political propaganda. Kwangmyong is officially free to use, but very few people can access it due to governmental restrictions and simply because computers are too pricy for an average North Korean citizen that earns about $30 per month. As for the World Wide Web, only embassies, chosen government officials and special services can access Internet.

Nevertheless, you can’t say that North Korea completely avoids modern technologies. On the contrary, it seems that the government had brought up its own team of hackers and uses them to flex their cyber-muscles on the world stage from time to time. Not so long ago the country made boast of their cyber-fighters after they hacked Sony Pictures. Additionally, the lack of any dedicated internet not only keeps their citizens in the dark, it also stops any potential retaliatory attacks from outside sources.

India: why so slow?

Internet access in India is rather slow basically because of the poor infrastructure. A curious fact: the thing that stops providers from switching to fibre optics and offering higher speeds is the lack of demand for the high speed internet. Why? Because many companies follow the Fair Usage Policy, which slows your access speed down if you use more than agreed.

As Indian citizens admit, their Internet providers would readily run a fibre optics cable to their house if there would be at least a dozen of people who wanted it. Having enough clients providers would be able to cut down prices.  The thing is that it’s not easy to gather enough volunteers — nobody wants to be the first.


How to leave three countries disconnected with one shovel

One can say that you need a team of experienced hackers to deprive a whole country of Internet access. As It turns out, all you actually need is a 75 year old Georgian woman with a shovel and a penchant for copper.

In March 2011 she was digging for copper not far from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. During the “exploration works” her spade damaged the fibre-optic cable which transferred 99% of Internet traffic to Armenia and some regions in Georgia and Azerbaijan. As the result in March 28 these regions were forced to stay offline for 12 hours.

As it turned out, this cable had been damaged several times before by copper and potato hunters. One year earlier there was a similar incident, fortunately with less striking consequences. This enviable consistency can be explained by the weather, which regularly opens access to the cable to different saboteurs.

The cable enters Georgia territory through the Black Sea, via the Poti seaport. Then it branches, and heads on towards Armenia and Azerbaijan. To protect it from vandals the cable was laid in an underground tunnel dug parallel to the railway. But heavy rainfalls sometimes cause the pipe to become exposed. It looks like the aged Georgian woman and other diggers discovered the cable during periods of heavy rainfall.

The Internet’s backbone survived a number of other noteworthy incidents. In 2013 in Egypt three copper hunters looked for the coloured metal and cut a piece of underwater cables. As the result Internet speed in the country decreased by 60%. In 2008 Egypt, India, Pakistan and Kuwait suffered from a similar incident, which took place near Alexandria coast.

Vandals were not the only people to blame for Internet blackout in Egypt. In 2011 local authorities successfully did the same (and shut down cellular connection as well). Moreover, they did it with the help of just several phone calls to local providers.

However Egypt is not alone in this matter. There are a lot of countries with limited Internet. Last year the Freedom House organisation published a report, which named TOP 10 countries with the most censored Internet.

As a final titbit, let’s look at this world map designed by Renesys company. It shows which countries can be quickly disconnected from the internet. For example, Russia and the USA are connected with the whole world via dozens of cables, along with wireless connections and satellites – which are significantly more difficult to disconnect. Countries with a less-developed infrastructure are more vulnerable. You can find Syria, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Myanmar and Yemen among them.