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What is the splinternet of things?

The internet is increasingly fractured - is the IoT doomed to fail?

Tuesday, 2 June, 2020

There’s a certain irony to the fact that the internet is facilitating unprecedented division and distrust, while simultaneously bringing everyone closer together.

You can now communicate with people around the world in real time, at any time. It’s possible to view information from any nation, and buy or sell goods and services globally.

Yet the internet is increasingly splintering into distinct factions along historic fault lines – nationalists versus unionists, Sunnis versus Shias, East versus West, etc.

Social media platforms entrench division by prioritising content each user is likely to enjoy. And if you only ever see one side of a story, how can the other side hope to win you round?

A similar phenomenon is afflicting the Internet of Things, with near-identical causes.

The IoT has been heralded as the future of society – hundreds of billions of web-enabled devices communicating with each other (and us) across the internet.

Examples include home security systems controllable from anywhere in the world, and smart speakers which turn our lights on when we tell them to.

In the UK, it’s easy to assume the whole world is as enthralled with Alexas and Hives as we are.

But many nations actively resent the American-dominated IoT market.

And this is leading to a concept known as the splinternet of things, where the supposedly universal IoT is in danger of failing before it’s even become established.

Splinter group

Despite the UK’s pivotal role in areas like home computing and the World Wide Web, the leading technology firms are all American.

Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon… the list goes on.

And in many countries, America’s reputation is mud, while its technology firms are either unknown, banned or simply unwelcome.

Take the world’s most populous country, China. Baidu is their version of Google, Alibaba is their Amazon and WeChat is their Facebook.

The closest most Chinese people get to an Amazon Alexa is manufacturing these devices – often in conditions its eventual users would consider totally unacceptable.

And this is another issue driving the splinternet of things – distrust.

China’s reputation has been harmed by revelations about schoolchildren being made to work long hours to manufacture Alexas, while the Covid-19 outbreak hasn’t helped its standing.

Equally, China is deeply suspicious of America, particularly after Wikileaks revealed the National Security Agency was conducting worldwide espionage on internet traffic.

Later that year, the Brazilian President announced plans to create a national intranet, to prevent American interference.

How can a global internet standard be developed and maintained if Brazil blocks American content, or while Huawei smartphones can’t run Google apps?

Huawei’s controversial involvement in our own 5G mobile network represents another example of the splinternet of things, especially since the IoT won’t succeed without 5G.

Yet there’s a real possibility the global 5G network may end up as two incompatible entities, with one powered by Chinese technology and the other using anything but.

Given Western suspicions about the Chinese government’s ability to compel domestic firms to serve their interests – and the reciprocal distrust of American brands – it’s hard to see a resolution.

We may end up with more than one Internet of Things, serving part of the world but not all of it.

Western consumers may not notice the resultant compromises, but this is a long way short of the globally adopted and universally compatible Internet of Things we’ve been promised.

It may also delay or reduce the extent to which web-enabled tech can improve our lives in the years ahead.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!

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