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Fragmentation of the internet

UNICEF report warns internet continues to fragment and become less global

The internet will continue to fragment and become less global, resulting in further disparities — prompting a greater push for openness, fairness and inclusion, UNICEF writes in a 2023 Global Outlook report with trends that in the coming year will affect child rights and wellbeing.

“While the internet has been splintering for some years, fragmentation has accelerated and is now at an all-time high. Fragmentation, or the segmentation of the internet into separate islands of connectivity and governance, undermines its creators’ vision that it be a global public good that benefits all.” 

The report says that children in particular stand to lose from this fragmentation because they depend on internet access for information and educational resources, play, and socializing with friends, peers and family. 

Fragmentation of the internet into separate and often incompatible networks consists of multiple dimensions, the report says: 

  1. Geopolitical – reflecting increased competition among governments seeking to advance their political and economic interests in the digital sphere, usually at the expense of digital cooperation. 
  2. Technical – with governments, industry and civil society often unable to reach consensus on competing standards. Such consensus is needed needed for digital systems to operate together. 
  3. Economic – in which business practices stifle the open and rights-based use of technology platforms. Meanwhile, the lack of equitable distribution of the benefits of data use has led governments to restrict international data flows. 
  4. Democratic – in which internet fragmentation manifests in censorship and surveillance, internet shutdowns, disruptions and other limitations on internet freedoms. These levels of internet fragmentation are interconnected, with government policies often driving the process. 
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“Some governments’ efforts to carve up the internet into nationally siloed and controllable spaces are made easier by the absence of global internet governance frameworks and coordination”, the UNICEF report argues. 

“More than 50 countries across the political spectrum are now adopting a data sovereignty approach, whereby the data of their citizens, government agencies and corporations are subject to national laws and governance structures, and data is processed within the country’s borders.”

“Commercial interests’ response to government policies can further exacerbate fragmentation. Due to the proliferation of regulatory frameworks, companies may choose to operate only in countries with strong economic returns, leaving users in other locations with fewer internet services and potentially limiting their economic opportunities.” 

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“Online censorship has also increased, with more than three-quarters of the world’s internet users now living in countries where they can be punished for exercising their right to free expression online.”

The report’s other seven trends that will share child rights and wellbeing in 2023:

  1. The pandemic’s harms will continue to be counted — but reforms of health architecture and medical breakthroughs offer hope for children.
  2. Efforts to tame inflation will have unintended negative effects on child poverty and well-being — requiring policy measures that protect investments for vulnerable families and children.
  3. Multiple factors will contribute to continued food and nutrition insecurity — with increasing calls for greater climate adaptation and food systems reform to prevent food poverty in children.
  4. The worsening energy crisis may cause immediate harm to children — but the focus on energy sustainability provides hope for a greener future.
  5. Unmet needs and underinvestment in children warrant reforms of financial flows to developing countries — while renewed attention on climate finance and debt relief holds promise.
  6. Threats to democratic rights such as freedom of expression are expected to continue — but social movements, including those led by young people and women, are likely to push back.
  7. Increasing factionalism will put further stress on multilateralism — but efforts to address children’s and young people’s concerns may offer opportunities to find common ground.
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