Splinternets

How online balkanization is creating a headache for digital content distribution. This analysis is an extract from our 2018 Trends Report.

What is it about?

Splinternet refers to a subset of the digital ecosystem that operates more or less independently from the rest of the internet.

The phenomenon, also known as cyber-balkanization, was first mentioned more than 20 years ago and has been the subject of major studies, in particular, one by Harvard University in 2007. So, despite the ideal of a vast global open network of integrated communications, there are actually digital barriers, or borders, limiting the circulation of information and content online.

The causes are numerous, complex, and often interrelated: national regulations and case law related to censorship, doing business, or protecting personal information; business practices and technological developments favouring the development of closed ecosystems or walled gardens; the organic emergence of online communities sharing a culture, language, or common interests; etc.

Among the best-known splinternets are the People’s Republic of China, whose digital ecosystem is tightly controlled by the government and closed to certain platforms like Facebook and Netflix, and the Facebook-driven Free Basics program, which provides free access to a limited number of online services in developing countries.

Less well-known is RuNet, a network of Russian online and app resources. While not the result of any particular regulatory action or concerted business initiative, RuNet has become the main digital convergence point for Russian-speaking communities and is evolving relatively autonomously.

Although it’s not new, the splinternet trend is now intensifying under the impetus of digital giants including the American GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) and the Chinese BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Xiaomi). These large corporations described by some as “Net-States” are expanding their services, apps, features, and content to keep their billions of users from ever leaving their respective digital ecosystems.

Why is it important to out industries?

In addition to filter bubbles, covered in our previous Trends Reports, the growth of splinternets further complicates content marketing and discoverability. We must not only understand how the algorithms of a platform work (how to capture its users), but we must also know what its digital boundaries are: the consumers it hits and those it misses.

Interesting facts

At the technological level, the development of splinternets has been facilitated by the decline of interoperability, the ability of one computer system to work with other products or other computer systems.

Unlike early web technologies (browsers, websites, HTTP protocol), many of today’s devices, apps, and operating systems (such as Android and Mac OS) are not interoperable. Content producers and distributors are familiar with that problem: to distribute content in Google or Apple ecosystems, for example, you need to develop apps for everyone.

Go deeper

Worth following

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently voted in favour of dismantling the regulations related to net neutrality (the principles that guarantee equal treatment for all online data flows). This decision could accelerate the splinternet trend by allowing digital platforms and internet service providers to favour certain types of content over others (like Facebook does with its Free Basics service outside the US). For Canadian content companies counting on business in the US market, the ramifications could be significant.

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Industry & Market Trends | Veille stratégique
The Industry and Market Trends team is composed of Director Catherine Mathys, analysts Pierre Tanguay and Sabrina Dubé-Morneau, as well as editorial coordinator Laurianne Désormiers. Once a year, the team publishes a Trends Report that draws a portrait of the macro trends that are shaping today’s screen-based industries.

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