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THE GUIDE IN BRIEF

The global tug-of-war over the future of the internet

Julia Dufossé for Quartz
Published

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💡 The Big Idea

The world is entering a new, more intense era of fragmentation that is going to change the way the internet works. Here’s the TLDR to our field guide on the splinternet.


🤔Here’s Why

1️⃣ We’re a long way from the early ambition and optimism of a truly global and open internet.

2️⃣ Digital divides are growing.

3️⃣ And geopolitical tensions are increasingly undermining the promise of the internet.

4️⃣ Activists are fighting to ensure the internet remains open.

5️⃣ But the future of the internet is also in our hands.


📝 The Details

1️⃣ We’re a long way from the early ambition and optimism of a truly global and open internet.

For many people across the world, the internet has delivered on its promise to radically accelerate access to information. But it’s become increasingly clear that we don’t have the ideal version of a singular internet that early enthusiasts might have hoped for. The internet’s splintering is accelerating, exemplified by China’s increasingly influential philosophy of cyber-sovereignty, and US president Donald Trump’s efforts to broker a sale of TikTok.

Quartz asked experts to help us imagine the experiences of internet users across the world five years from now, based on the present-day battles between tech giants, politicians, and internet freedom fighters that are directly shaping our online future. In our state of play, we imagine hypothetical news events taking place in 2025, as a way of unpacking the current stakes—from the fallout of an anxious US contending with China’s rising tech stature, to the impact of millions more coming online from in Africa, and more.

2️⃣ Digital divides are growing.

Hundreds of millions of people remain offline, or can’t access websites in their own language, at all. Those who are online are divided by bandwidth disparities—police brutality at a protest in Hong Kong will be far better documented than at one in Baghdad. And with the arrival of the monopolistic era of the internet, and rules increasingly set by giant companies, users have coalesced within platforms based on political leanings, age, and hobbies, often growing more separate from their fellow citizens, even while using the same sites.

3️⃣ Geopolitical tensions are increasingly undermining the promise of the internet.

Some political observers, like Robert Reich, have worried that international corporations would become “stateless global webs” and hence that their “nationality” would become ever more irrelevant. But as geopolitical tensions and nationalism rise globally, corporate nationality is making a comeback. Governments are heavily scrutinizing foreign tech services which, like their domestic competitors, have troves of local user data and can affect issues ranging from elections to social movements.

Next-generation space internet holds promise for more unfettered communication. But satellites don’t remove geopolitics from the equation, and satellite internet still depends on terrestrial technology. “We are moving into a world where nationalism is becoming more prevalent and the rules around delivering telecom services into countries are becoming much more challenging,” explains Rupert Pearce, the CEO of Inmarsat, a major private satellite communications provider that works with businesses and governments in 200 different countries.

4️⃣ Activists are fighting to ensure the internet remains open.

While many trends point to an increasingly splintered internet, there are dozens of organizations and individuals across the world fighting for a free and open one. As an example, AI researchers across the globe are working on advancing natural language processing to help make the internet more accessible in different languages.

And users continue to find creative ways to get around government control. If it goes ahead with its ban on WeChat, the US might put a dent in the ability of Americans and Chinese citizens to connect with each other. But there are still other windows into China for those interested enough to learn.

5️⃣ But the future of the internet is also in our hands.

Predicting the future is a bit of a fool’s errand—ask anyone who shared preemptive thoughts about 2020, a year that brought us an event so life-altering that it has spun our lives onto a completely different trajectory.

The fictional scenarios we provide in our state of play are not assertions about what the internet is going to look like in 2025. Rather, they serve as reminders that the internet is shaped not just by ideals and philosophies, but by the daily, often quite mind-numbingly complicated work of individuals. Every day they work towards their vision for the internet. Whether we agree with it or not, knowing the potential consequences of their actions gives us a chance to push back, and to exert some of our own power over the “splinternet.”