Tech utopians once believed that the internet would be a self-governing, emancipatory realm. 

One of them was John Perry Barlow who wrote A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. In the flowery, libertarian manifesto Barlow told the world’s governments – “weary giants of flesh and steel” – that there would be no place for their meddling on the World Wide Web. 

Today, the dream is dead and buried. States are routinely treating cyberspace as an extension of their physical territories. The internet is being carved up and regulated. This is a worrying prospect not just for free speech and global trade but for the ability of people to agree on things in an already “post-truth” age.

The latest crack in the edifice of the net is the “sovereign internet” law that has just taken effect in Russia. The law gives the Kremlin sweeping powers to restrict domestic internet traffic by funnelling it through state-controlled nodes as well as the option to cut Russia off from the global internet if an “emergency” (as defined by the Kremlin) threatens it. To complement this “digital iron curtain”, last week Vladimir Putin proposed replacing Wikipedia with a more “reliable” Russian equivalent and has budgeted $27 million to do so. 

Putin’s attempt to assert control over the web is part of a wider trend towards creating isolated internet fiefdoms. China has been a trailblazer in championing internet nationalism. Its nascent efforts to control cyberspace were dismissed by President Bill Clinton at the turn of the millennium; it would be like trying to “nail Jello to the wall”.

The Chinese are now the Jello-nailing masters. By building its own internet superstructure and by filtering and monitoring the content which appears on it, China’s Cnutian efforts to hold back the tide of the web have been alarmingly successful. 

The country’s Great Firewall blocks access to foreign websites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The national equivalents of these sites are subject to rigorous sifting and censoring helping to align Chinese citizens’ view of the world with the Party’s preferred version. Google pulled out of China in 2010 amid censorship and hacking disputes but is currently developing a censored search engine for the Chinese market.

Seduced by the possibility of exerting control over the net, China’s neighbours have started to mimic its restrictive internet policies. Thailand passed a cybersecurity law earlier this year which hands the state extensive powers to monitor its citizens’ internet use and censor content. In Vietnam, a similar law forces companies like Facebook and Google to store the data they gather within Vietnam and to remove any content the government deems unsavoury.

A bipolar cyberspace, with a Chinese and Western model of the internet running side by side, is becoming easier to imagine. But differences in policy are also undermining the unity of the net within the West. Some American firms have taken to simply blocking European internet traffic from visiting US websites instead of complying with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

Germany even floated the idea of building a domestic internet infrastructure, partly in response to the revelation that America’s National Security Agency might have monitored foreign internet traffic passing through the United States.