Strengthening the Internet 13 July 2023

Specific App and Service Bans are Fragmenting the Internet

Increasing government actions to block or ban specific web services or applications are fragmenting the Internet.

Because of how the Internet works, top-down interference with specific services and technologies on the Internet will likely damage interoperation and tend to splinter the Internet into smaller, less-connected islands. 

As the Internet and the services on it become more important, people increasingly depend on them. Bans of individual services can have a negative effect because many applications form an important part of people’s lives. Some online services provide people with their income or networks of support. Others provide essential information for healthcare and education. Part of the safety and security of citizens is their freedom to interact with others in the ways they wish, and banning such applications inherently takes away that freedom.  

National and regional bans can also have the ironic effect of undermining security online for citizens. The Internet is designed to be extremely flexible and provide multiple ways to achieve a goal. People who depend on a service may circumvent barriers to access that service, or worse, fall for scams that pretend to restore access. This can expose those and other people to fake sites and other sources of malware. 

The impact goes beyond a country’s borders. The more governments block or ban each other’s online services, the more it fragments the Internet by making user experiences insular and inconsistent from country to country. The global economy will suffer, and many will be left without easy access to cross-border resources that are critical to their daily lives. Furthermore, people in one country or region can end up with less access to valuable information than is available elsewhere on the Internet, thereby exacerbating global inequity.  

Some governments claim their actions are necessary for national security–when citizen use of some applications or services could lead to wide scale theft of personal data, exposure of national security assets, or creation of numerous in-country landing points for a widespread cybersecurity attack, among other risks. But the idea that these risks are somehow unique to a particular application or service is poorly founded: the same attacks could be as easily embedded in another permitted application. Since the Internet is such a flexible technology, any necessary defense of national security has to come from preventing the attacks no matter how they come from the Internet. National security that supposedly comes from banning a particular application is a security blanket made entirely of holes. 

Governments should avoid service or applications specific bans, which undermine security and access to opportunities on the world’s greatest communications resource. Instead of banning a particular platform or application based on non-technical criteria like country of origin or ownership, countries should be transparent about risks and raise the privacy and security standards for all online services and app stores to mitigate broader potential threats to critical infrastructure and services from end-user devices.  

When it comes to making the Internet safer, countries should aim for transparent, multistakeholder approaches to cyber security, including global norms to counter the use of the Internet and services or apps as a platform for attack. This includes finding collaborative ways to thwart the broader threats to privacy and security online, and the development and implementation of international norms and confidence building measures such as those suggested by the Global Commission on the Stability of cyberspace

These alternatives to service bans will help prevent fragmentation and promote an Internet that is more open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy.

App and service blocking is increasingly being used around the world by governments to disrupt their citizens’ access to the Internet.

According to the Internet Society Pulse shutdowns tracker, more than ten shutdowns so far in 2023 have been attributed to app and service blocking. Not only do these kinds of shutdowns negatively affect people’s daily lives, but they also can have a devastating effect on a country’s economy.

Find out how much service blocking can cost national economies by using the NetLoss calculator.

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