Over the last five years, the term “internet balkanization” has become common in discussions about the fragmentation of the global, open internet based on nations and regions enforcing their own rules, standards and policies.
However, the comparison between the complex issues around internet governance and the conflicts that took place in the Balkans during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is insensitive. That's because the Balkans conflicts led to regional and world wars (and sometimes genocide and the displacement of millions of people) so using this comparison trivializes real human suffering. We can do better by using precise language to describe internet fragmentation challenges, without appropriating painful history for merely colorful and empty metaphors.
Furthermore, the term "internet balkanization" does not accurately capture the multifaceted nature of the challenges faced by the global internet. The fragmentation of the internet is not solely a result of political or geographic factors; it is also influenced by technological, economic, and regulatory considerations. Using a term rooted in geopolitical history fails to adequately encompass the diverse set of issues at play. More thoughtful terms like “digital sovereignty,” “internet localization,” “data protectionism” or even simply “internet fragmentation” capture very well the emerging trends of national internet segments better than flippant allusions to war.
Rather than reflexive buzzwords, we need nuanced frameworks that advance equitable digital access and data flows globally while respecting security and rights. The future of technology policy impacts real human lives and livelihoods; our language must reflect that responsibility.