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Editorial: Protecting the internet's value amid global fragmentation

The raison d'etre of the internet, which allows anyone to freely transmit information, is being reassessed following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as our border-transcending information infrastructure faces a crisis of fragmentation.

    The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in the United States, is a private organization that manages internet domains. At the end of February, the Ukrainian government called for ICANN to invalidate Russian domains.

    Ukraine's aim was to cut off Russian government propaganda justifying the invasion, but ICANN rejected the request, explaining, "In our role as the technical coordinator of unique identifiers for the Internet, we take actions to ensure that the workings of the Internet are not politicized, and we have no sanction-levying authority."

    At the same time, some communication firms in the U.S. and Europe have suspended services to Russia, on the grounds that such services could provide a path for cyberattacks.

    -- A smartphone information war

    Since the end of the Cold War, the internet has developed in tandem with economic globalization. In the 1990s there were some millions of internet users. Now, there are 5 billion, and the internet has become an international public asset.

    Internet fragmentation that damages truly global connectivity is referred to as the "splinternet." It is not uncommon for authoritarian states to disconnect foreign countries from their domestic networks to control information. Russia has a law in place allowing information of overseas origin to be blocked in emergencies. And many American-based social media sites cannot be used in China, which has strengthened its control of information.

    The question this time was whether international society would shut Russia out of cyberspace.

    "This is the first time the world has been made to consider what to do with the internet at a time of war," said Akinori Maemura of the Japan Network Information Center, which administers internet addresses.

    During the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. military attack on Iraq was broadcast live via satellite. Now, Ukrainian citizens have used social media to convey to international society the damage to their country and to ask for support. And smartphones are playing a leading role in the information war.

    In Russia, meanwhile, restrictions have been placed on social media, allowing only information favorable to the government to spread. Because of this, it is said that more people have been using encrypted virtual private networks (VPNs) to try to access news from overseas.

    Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society, a global organization with a leading role in internet technology development and other areas, wrote that for people across the world living under conflict, the internet "is a tool to help them understand what is going on, and to communicate their struggle." He added, "Cutting a whole population off the Internet will stop disinformation coming from that population -- but it also stops the flow of truth."

    To maintain a democratic society, it is vital for the public to be able to freely access information infrastructures and learn the truth. The problem is that advanced digital technology is being abused, making it more difficult to ascertain whether information is genuine or not.

    -- The internet's role in strengthening democracy

    When the internet first emerged and started expanding, it was hoped that if the world were linked via communication lines, then people would share values such as freedom and human rights. Currently, though, we are seeing the side effects of these connections.

    As was evident with the posting of a fake video appearing to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling for his own troops to give up, deep fakes built using artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Fake information creates bias, stirring up opposition.

    The United States and some other countries have encountered problems with election interference, with personal information being collected and analyzed to induce certain voting behaviors. Such interference warps the democratic process.

    It has also been pointed out that the use of social media and search engines narrows people's views, by corralling them into echo chambers where they converse only with people who share their views and slanted information flows freely. We must not allow society to become intolerant, with differing values banished.

    Cyberspace can be either a protector or destroyer of peace, depending on how it's used. States and regions that respect the free dissemination of information need to cooperate and put their heads together to build a mechanism to maintain the health of the internet.

    Open-source intelligence (OSINT), which uses public information to verify facts, has proved powerful in the Ukraine crisis. There have also been moves by governments to seek enhanced measures from operators against fake information and to introduce legal restraints.

    The internet enables people with different historical backgrounds and mindsets to connect with each other and reach common understanding through discussion. International collaboration should be strengthened to protect its value and to fortify democracy.

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