IGF 2022 Day 0 Event #68 Understanding Internet Fragmentation: Concepts and their Implications for Action

Monday, 28th November, 2022 (14:00 UTC) - Monday, 28th November, 2022 (15:30 UTC)
Caucus Room 11


Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, Columbia Business School, New York City

Organizer 1: William J. Drake, Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, Columbia Business School, Academia, WEOG
Organizer 2: Anriette Esterhuysen, Association for Progressive Communication, Johannesburg, Civil Society, Africa Group
Organizer 3: Milton Mueller, The Internet Governance Project, Georgia Tech School of Public Policy, Academia, WEOG


Speaker 1: Milton Mueller, The Internet Governance Project, Georgia Tech School of Public Policy, Academia, WEOG
Speaker 2: Wolfgang Kleinwächter, European Summer School on Internet Governance, Civil Society, WEOG
Speaker 3: Sheetal Kumar, Global Partners Digital, Civil Society, WEOG
Speaker 4: Neha Mishra, Department of International Law, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Academia, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 5: Andrew Sullivan, The Internet Society, Technical Community, WEOG
Speaker 6: Xu Peixi, Global Internet Governance Studies Center, The Communication University of China, Academia, Asia-Pacific Group

Onsite Moderator

Anriette Esterhuysen, Civil Society, African Group

Online Moderator

William J. Drake, Civil Society, WEOG


Milton Mueller, Civil Society, WEOG


9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
Targets: [The CMS is not allowing multi-select, but this session would be relevant to 8.3, 9.1, 9.2, 9.5 b & c, 10.2, 17.6 and 17.12.] Research and international dialogue have amply demonstrated that Internet openness is a key facilitator of individual and social empowerment, economic growth and development, and political participation and accountability. Internet fragmentation reduces Internet openness and hence can work against the realization of these internationally agreed objectives. By extension, this is true with respect to the mentioned SDGs. Goals like advancing development-oriented policies, resilient infrastructures, inclusive and sustainable industrialization, scientific research and technological capabilities, domestic technological innovation, access to ICTs, inclusion, international cooperation and public-private and civil society partnerships all are promoted by the interoperability of networks and related technologies and the ability of willing parties to exchange packets without undue interference from third parties or technical problems. A Day 0 session designed to increase international understanding of the nature and consequences of Internet fragmentation and its implications for action is therefore very consistent with promotion of the SDGs.


This session would be conducted as an interactive, “talk show” style roundtable. As a foundation, the moderators would pose topical questions that were agreed in advance by the speakers in order to provide structure and ensure that the conversation moves in a fluid manner through the entire agenda. Additional questions and follow-ups could be posed in accordance with the flow of the conversation. To aid that flow, initial responses would be two-three minutes maximum, and each panelist need not respond to every question. The panelists would speak for sixty minutes, and then we would have thirty minutes of open and inclusive discussion among all participants, both onsite and online.  


It matters how issues are defined and understood. Far from being “just an academic issue,” concepts can directly impact how international policy issues are institutionalized on shared agendas and within government agencies and organizations; which actors and institutional models are given preference, or not; and ultimately, how wide is the space for achieving common ground among states and stakeholders. Twenty years ago, these dynamics were clearly demonstrated in the WSIS debates about how to define and understand Internet governance. Today, they becoming increasingly evident and important in global discussions about Internet fragmentation.

The MAG has designated “Avoiding Internet Fragmentation” to be one of the 2022 IGF’s five organizing themes. There likely will be many events on the program related to this topic. But what exactly does Internet fragmentation mean, and how does that meaning affect the actions that may be undertaken by states and stakeholders? Absent a greater degree of shared understanding of the nature, sources, forms and consequences of fragmentation, we may struggle to reach consensus on desirable actions to be pursued by the global community in the years ahead.

This sort of discordance has been on display in both the growing analytical literature and the many conferences and other events on fragmentation. It seems that the term is being used (and at times, abused) in a range of ways that implicate policy and practice. For example, some participants in the debates take a broad approach and see fragmentation as having technical, commercial and governmental sources and forms, which implies that actions may be needed in each of those domains. Others take a narrow approach that equates fragmentation with only government policy, which means the only attention needed is to that domain. Further, some participants seem to believe that mere differences in public policy orientation across countries or regions counts as fragmentation, and some even draw the inference that we have in effect multiple incompatible Internets rather than one Internet with different zones of governance. Some see fragmentation as a continuously present condition that varies in form, intensity and impact over time and across domains of activity or the protocol stack, while others see it more in a totalized and binary manner – either the Internet is fragmented at the root, or it is not fragmented at all. Some see fragmentation has hugely problematic, while others see it as at a mere inconvenience that can be managed and patched. And so on --- there are many sources of difference in perspective about how fragmentation is understood and what sorts of actions by whom should be taken in consequence.

The purpose of this Day 0 session is to help advance our thinking about these foundational questions before we plunge into days of fragmentation-related workshops and other events. The session would bring together prominent analysts and stakeholders from five continents who hold varying and even divergent viewpoints in the hope of working toward a higher level of consensus (or at least a more structured range of disagreements) on the core features, sources, forms, and consequences of Internet fragmentation, and what all these may mean for actions taken in response by states and stakeholders.

Examples of some of the key policy-relevant questions to be explored include:

1. The Nature of Internet Fragmentation

  • What are the core defining features of fragmentation? What exactly is being separated or segmented away from what, and how?
  • At what levels of social organization or protocols must this occur for us to say there is fragmentation?
  • Is intentional action required in all cases, or may fragmentation be an unintended consequence of actions?
  • Is fragmentation by definition a negative phenomenon, or can there be positive fragmentation?

2. The Sources and Forms of Internet Fragmentation

  • In which societal domains do we find the sources of fragmentation, e.g. technical, commercial, governmental or other? Has sufficient attention been devoted to each?
  • Are all forms of fragmentation created equal, or can their presence and impact be variable?
  • With regard to governmental sources, what kinds of national measures really “count” as causing or reflecting fragmentation?

3. The Progress and Structural Consequences of Internet Fragmentation

  • How do we measure or determine whether fragmentation is increasing or decreasing?
  • Can it arrive via the accumulation of small shifts, or only in a big bang?
  • Has fragmentation proceeded so far that we should now speak only of the “splinternet?” Do we still have “one world, one Internet,” or rather multiple Internets?

4. Implications for Shared Values and Objectives.

  • Which forms of fragmentation have which main implications for international objectives like human rights, people-centered economic development, political inclusion and participation, and so on?
  • What actions can civil society, the private sector, and the technical community take in response to these challenges?
  • What actions can governments take?

5. International Governance Responses

  • There is growing debate about the use of Digital Economy Agreements (DEAs) to promote international cooperation and regulatory convergence on a range of issues like digitally enabled supply chains, digital inclusion and identities, crossborder data flows, forced data localization, cybersecurity, consumer protection, privacy and data protection, artificial intelligence, and so on.
  • In parallel, collaborations like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and the Declaration on the Future of the Internet embody normative DEA-like modules within wider political frameworks.
  • Could these recent forms of international cooperation evolve in a manner that helps to ameliorate Internet fragmentation? Conversely, is there any risk that they could create political blocs in a manner that actually increases fragmentation?
  • Is there reason to believe they could be more successful in ameliorating fragmentation than traditional international institutions?
  • What other kinds of institutions and collaborative processes could be pursued to help manage and attenuate fragmentation?