It is easy to take ubiquitous internet access for granted in the developed world. But getting online in many developing countries is still tough or impossible due to a permutation of poverty, government neglect or infrastructure challenges.
One of the near-term solutions may be the effective splintering of the internet into bite-sized chunks. If people can’t have all of it at once, maybe they can get it in more easily deliverable pieces.
It is a trend that offers hope of improved access, but the so-called Splinternet will also create challenges for regulators in countries where governments keep a close eye on communications for reasons of security or social standards.
One of the pioneers is LibraryBox, an open-source hardware and software project put together by Jason Griffey, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
The box is a low-powered Wi-Fi router that can be run from a solar panel, battery or even a bicycle charger. Users can copy material from the internet, including entire websites, on to an attachable USB stick, then broadcast it to nearby users.
The router itself doesn’t actually connect to the internet, but instead creates its own network with range up to about 150 feet. People who connect to it via a mobile phone or tablet are using the internet – or at least whatever parts of it are on the USB stick – without actually being online.
“It’s an island that doesn’t connect to anything else,” Mr Griffey says. “It’s effectively a web server.”
The idea comes from PirateBox, a similar device created by American and German developers in 2011. Intended to let students easily share documents, it was also a statement against the copyright lawsuits being filed against internet users by music labels and Hollywood studios.
Mr Griffey, a librarian-technologist, also drew inspiration from Occupy.here.
Activists used the device during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. By virtue of not actually being connected to the internet, Occupy.here allowed surveillance-free communications.
Envisaging a similar device for educational purposes, Mr Griffey developed the LibraryBox in 2012. A successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than US$33,000 helped him release a 2.0 version in 2013.
Mr Griffey now sells the LibraryBox for $150 and gives away the source code to anyone who wants to make their own.
The digital tool has proven popular with educators and non-profit organisations, and is now in use in 37 countries.
A library in Queensland, Australia, for example, is using it to share media with rural residents. Story Sailboat, a mobile library on a boat, is incorporating it into its services to people living off the coast of California. The American National Health Alliance is also using about 50 LibraryBoxes to deliver basic health education in Africa.
The idea is similar to Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which seeks to give people in developing countries free access to important websites.
The big difference is that Facebook chooses which websites get to be part of Internet.org, while each LibraryBox’s content is up to the individual user. Mr Griffey hopes it will be used by “trusted entities”, including teachers and librarians.
The splintering of the internet – the Splinternet name was coined by researcher Clyde Wayne Crews in 2001 – has been under way for years, with numerous factors contributing. Various governments are blocking certain types of websites or services, gadget makers are working to lock users into their own product ecosystems and content creators are moving toward apps that are effectively invisible to the rest of the web.
The result is that there’s no such thing as one internet anymore. The experience a user has in South Korea is different from that in the United Arab Emirates, or the United States.
Some splintering, especially by benevolent efforts such as LibraryBox, is good because it will help to counter the domination of the internet by huge companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.
The monoliths have interests in controlling how the internet works and naturally want to lock people into their own services.
“That is not the best trend for the internet to be taking,” Mr Griffey says.
The thought of splintering may run contrary to ideals held in developed countries of a democratic network that is equal across the globe, but the reality of connecting the other half of the world’s population is likely to require compromises. A truly global internet is more likely to consist of a multitude of internets if and when it is finally achieved.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
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