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Is Balkanization of the Internet inevitable?

The openness of the Internet could fall to nationalism.That's just one of the side effects from nationalism and its impact on global trade, according to the Wall Street Journal.
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Written by Larry Dignan on

The openness of the Internet could fall to nationalism.

That's just one of the side effects from nationalism and its impact on global trade, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal in its Monday edition zoomed out to look at the rise of nationalism. After all, talk of free trade has been shouted down. Governments are raising barriers across economic and political frontiers and entering daily lives more. And the world is becoming much less flat contrary what the New York Times' Thomas Friedman argues.

All of this nationalism back and forth has an impact on the Internet. The Journal reports:

National boundaries are going up even on the Internet, the emblem of the borderless world. The Internet was designed to be beyond the reach of governments, shifting power to individuals or private organizations.

Now, pressured by Russia, China, India and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. company that assigns Internet addresses is working on ways for countries to use characters from their home languages. The familiar .org, .com and country codes in Web addresses will be replaced with their equivalents in Chinese, Hindi and many other languages. While that should help locals navigate the Web, it would also put many sites behind curtains to users from abroad. That would spell the end of the days when anyone with a keyboard that produces Latin letters can see sites in any land -- essentially taking the "world wide" out of the World Wide Web.

"We're facing a step-by-step Balkanization of the global Internet," says Columbia University law professor Tim Wu. "It's becoming a series of national networks."

The Internet address governing body is ICANN and the effort the Journal refers to is summarized in a draft report on its site. The comment period on the draft expired Friday.

This local language Internet address plan raises a series of interesting questions to ponder.

  • Is the world wide really being taken out of the World Wide Web?
  • Is this the Internet predisposed to favor Latin-derived addresses because the first efforts kicked off in the U.S.?
  • Doesn't it make sense to help the locals navigate the Web?
  • Does this local character address plan really lead to a Balkanization of the Web?

There are no black and white answers to those questions. I'd argue there's a big gray area with outcomes determined by governments and their nationalistic fervor. If you're a company in Russia wouldn't you want an address that has local characters--assuming you harbor no global business ambitions? The only way we'd wind up with a big wall around Russia would be if the government mandated addresses have local characters. It's possible, but the multinationals would probably howl.

On paper, ICANN's plan makes sense. However, the unintended consequences need to be monitored. In any case, the Journal story provides a lot of food for thought on a Monday morning.

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