In response, governments around the world have begun to assert control, seeking to carve up the global Internet, manage it within national borders, and impose Westphalian sovereignty on the wild World Wide Web.
It's not entirely a new trend. The Great Firewall of China is almost as old as the Internet itself. But it is spreading, and taking new shapes.
Some of these efforts are explicitly about political control, imposing strict limits on what users within individual countries' borders can access. Iran's proposed halal Internet seeks to impose Islamic virtue on the browsing masses. In Russia, the state agency Roskomnadzor enforces an Internet block list that has filtered the blogs of government critics. And in Pakistan, a recently revived proposal for a national firewall targets "blasphemy" as a proxy for ideas unpopular with the government.
But some of this is about commerce and partitioning off intellectual property from a world without jurisdiction. In 2012, the United States saw proposed legislation, SOPA and PIPA, that would have made censorship a technical specification of U.S. networks and that threatened the stability of DNS -- a protocol that comprises the very backbone of the global web. And in Europe, the global trade agreement ACTA would have imposed similar restrictions -- all to reduce piracy.
Perhaps more worryingly, as countries seek to break up the Internet into neatly defined mirrors of themselves, they're trying to redefine international norms in order to justify their actions.
At the summit of the International Telecommunication Union in Dubai this past December, a bloc of countries -- RUCASS, made up of Russia, the United Arab Emirates, China, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan -- floated a proposal that tried to define a new term: the "national Internet segment," or any telecommunications networks within the territory of a state. This language, later endorsed by Bahrain and Iraq, would have allowed countries full regulation of the Internet within their borders, from filtering content to imposing fees on foreign traffic. Ultimately, it was withdrawn.
But even without new international regulations, the technical backbone of our Internet is increasingly controlled at the national level. Two years ago, as the Arab world exploded in popular protest, governments responded by simply shutting off the Internet, removing entire countries from the international grid. Egypt's mobile services were shut down and its Internet almost entirely disconnected, while in Libya, the Internet was throttled to a point of uselessness.