Navigating the divide: Internet fragmentation and global governance | Internet fragmentation | DW | 05.12.2023
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Internet governance

Navigating the divide: Internet fragmentation and global governance

An interview about emerging technologies, the fight against fragmentation, and the hope for a more inclusive digital future. #InternetGovernance #TechEthics

It's rather unfair that some parts of the world get to have this very positive approach to emerging technologies and the Internet, while other parts of the world are dealing with the violent and abusive side of it. 

Bruna Martins dos Santos is an Internet governance researcher, and an activist and is involved in policy making. We talked to her about how she combines these different roles and why it is important to look from all her different angles into the topic of internet fragmentation. 


Tell us a bit of your background story. Where does your interest in Internet governance come from?  

Bruna Martins dos Santos:  I’ve been working on digital rights and advocacy both in Brazil and at the global level for a few years now. I got the chance as a law student to work as an intern on the team drafting the Brazilian civil rights framework for the Internet, which was groundbreaking legislation developed in a full multi-stakeholder way with public consultations. And that's when my vision of my career became clear.  

More recently, I’ve just been focusing on activism and work on a campaign about big tech, accountability, and interaction. It’s all interconnected. 


In your opinion, what are the potential consequences of a fragmented Internet for communications, human rights, and the freedom of expression

Internet fragmentation is a highly complex issue. For years, we’ve been hearing from specialists on this topic, mostly from a technical perspective, such as whether the Domain Name System or internet protocols are working well.  There are many definitions and opinions on what fragmentation is and what it is not, but what brings us all together is  the UN joining the conversation. Our 2021 Common Agenda Report of the Secretary-General refers to Internet fragmentation in terms of how we can address the issue without hindering open and inclusive dialogue online.  


Is the Internet fragmented? 

Not yet. We’ve seen a lot of interventions, from companies or states, on how users have access to information. During an election for example, the government can just turn off like the Internet. But I don’t know if shutdowns mean Internet fragmentation. We should be especially concerned about the actions that can undermine users’ or citizens’ trust in broader democratic process. This is a complex, multi-layered discussion about technical fragmentation  – when users have no access to online products or services – together with the everyday basis of our relationship with platforms, governments, regulation, and broader policy-making. 


What is your advice for NGOs, activists, or organizations like us? 

We need to continue talking about collective oversight over the Internet, which is why theInternet Governance Forum or the RightsCon summits are good opportunities for people to exchange perceptions and ideas. 

In the interest of protecting an open, inclusive, accessible Internet, NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs) have been doing a really good job documenting abuses and should continue working together with journalists. This happened during the COVID pandemic, for example. It’s crucial to understand why our governments influence our access to the Internet, and why this is a violation of human rights.  

A lot of the work being done on competition and business models is related to the conversation about the ‘user fragmentation’ experience. But we do need to communicate better on future strategies and how they will continue to protect this space.  

We’ve now reached an inflection point when we are no longer looking at the Internet or emerging technologies as a solely positive thing, something that immediately and directly contributes to the empowerment of citizens and society. We now all know there are downsides, and this is why it's so important for spaces like the United Nations to kind of bring in a more realistic approach. We talk to Member States and explain the need for regulating social media platforms, algorithms, or anything that demeans society and the democratic process.  

The top tier issues in the global digital compact discussions address how the Internet can continue and how we can think about possible futures for our societies, emerging technologies, and also democracy. 


Do you have any good examples?   

There are many good examples. One that springs to mind when we're talking about fragmentation is the Access Now campaign on Internet shutdowns. It's a really good directory and also an analysis of how states are keeping tabs on the Internet. Until recently, discussion focussed on authoritarian or technocratic regimes, but in recent weeks, the French government informed local governors that it was fine to shut down the Internet in a certain area when protests were going on.  


Many activists are quite depressed about the political state of the world and the Internet. What gives you hope? 

That's a really good question. For me, the main hope is the possibility of bridging even more communities for a more aligned conversation about the Internet. It's rather unfair that some parts of the world get to have this very positive approach to emerging technologies and the Internet, while other parts of the world are dealing with the violent and abusive side of it.  


How can we work together in addressing these problems, mitigating the risks and everything else? 

 We are bringing in more voices, including female voices and the LGBTQIA+ communities, who are really relevant for this. I do hope that one day we reach a conversation on Internet fragmentation or Internet governance that includes every single one of these communities, and everybody is coming to these conversations with the same level of knowledge.  


Bruna Martins dos Santos is the Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group representative on the GNSO Council (Generic Names Supporting Organization). She is also a German Chancellor Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Visiting Researcher at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), and United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Multistakeholder Advisory Group Member.

Interview: Bahia Albrecht