The Internet was built on a series of relatively simple ideas. Decentralisation, resilience, content and transport neutrality. But from the start, one of the most important elements was that all content would be similarly available everywhere, because there would be no way to stop it. An open and free internet available to all using shared protocols governed by a multi-stakeholder model.
It was an ideal to strive for, and no matter how much we aspire to it, it would always be difficult to achieve. An open Internet is anathema to national regulation, so the history of the Web has been a constant struggle between control and freedom. Governments have in various ways tried to exercise sovereign control over Internet practices, platforms, users and tools. These efforts have ranged from the justifiable responses to abuse, to misguided attempts to restrict users’ rights.
So far the result was a largely open Internet dominated by a few tech giants, with governments exercising regulatory efforts. But the result of increasing regulation has been something unexpected, we are increasingly seeing a more fractured Internet, where your experience will be entirely dependent on your location. Geographic segregation on the Internet is not new, we’ve had several countries attempting to filter content for years now, and China pretty much runs a giant Intranet. But recent legal developments could be making things much worse.
The first is the passing of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the United States (also known as SESTA-FOSTA). This is a law designed to stop sex trafficking in online platforms, the idea is that intermediaries are protected by limitation of liability legislation, and this stops them responding to outright violations such as the listing of sex traffic victims online. This is not the place to break down why so many people have opposed this legislation as trying to fix one problem by opening a big gaping hole in the liability regime (best place to start is with EFF and Techdirt), but the law has had an interesting jurisdiction effect. Overnight the law made it difficult for legitimate sex workers to advertise online, as the law creates too much liability for intermediaries. The result was a migration of services and ads to platforms hosted outside of the US. But then, like a regulatory virus, even sex workers located elsewhere started having problems advertisers as the law is having the effect that if a service has a connection in the US, it will not accept any type of sex adverts. So sex workers are migrating to tolls that are not based in the US, such as Mastodon.
But this is nothing compared to the effect that is being caused by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will come into effect across Europe next week. This wide-ranging overhaul of data protection law has been causing untold levels of anxiety across a tech industry hooked on data, and with lots of uncertainty and misinformation we’re witnessing quite a few services that have simply decided to wash their hands off Europe altogether and will be suspending services to the region.
One of the first is the games to announce such a move was Ragnarok Online, which posted the following notice on its boards:
“Due to the changes of our company’s service policy for the European regions, we are saddened to bring you news that all games and WarpPortal services to the European regions listed below will be terminated on May 25th, 2018.
The following European countries will be affected by the termination of service: All the European countries except for Russian Federation and the CIS countries.
All WarpPortal game access and account access will be blocked by regional IP. Refunds will be gradually sent for purchases made from February 1st 2018 to April 30th 2018 to those affected by this service termination.”
In a more dramatic response, the online third-person arena game “Super Monday Night Combat” decided to completely shut down due to GDPR concerns. In an announcement they said:
“We want to thank all of you for your support of Super Monday Night Combat. Your passion is what made this game a pleasure to work on.
However, due to the upcoming European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deadline which is May 24th, we are sad to announce that we will be shutting down SMNC on that day. The game will remain active through May 23rd, 2018. Once our servers have been taken down, you will no longer be able to play SMNC in any game mode, so please make sure to get those matches in while you can.”
No further explanation of what exactly in the GDPR prompted them to take this action. They are not alone, platforms and services are ceasing to provide their products and sites to European customers citing the GDPR as a reason, including Verve, Unroll.me, and Steel Root (more here). A service called GDPR Shield is even offering code that will block access to EU customers:
FT is calling it data protectionism, a great threat to global business. But this is a much wider phenomenon, as governments try to regulate more and more, companies and services will make the decision of which laws they wish to comply with, and in some instances the global Internet starts to shrink as platforms cater to local markets instead of the ideal of a worldwide audience.
When you think about this, perhaps the dream of a global internet was always a false one, we are already trapped in our filter bubbles, consuming ideas and content that fits our needs and tastes. We segregate not only based on language, but also on age, taste and political orientation, and we congregate with those we like. We have also been foregoing the open Web in favour of apps, so your Internet experience becomes limited to that which platforms such as Facebook show you. What is taking place is that this segregation is increasingly jurisdictional as well, as services decide to block access to decrease their liability.
The Internet has therefore become a much smaller space in all layers: filtered, sanitized gated communities will be the norm. I can only see things getting worse with more talk of further regulation following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The global village becomes the local app.