Why Digital Fragmentation is on the Rise

November 1, 2022

The internet was seen as a globally unifying medium at its inception. It ushered an industrial revolution that’s still underway. But there’s a big problem: the unifying medium is breaking apart.

As Simon Evenett and Johannes Fritz, pioneers of two unique global databases that track state interventions in the digital world, wrote in a June 2022 paper co-sponsored by the Hinrich Foundation:

“Governments have gone into regulatory overdrive in digital sectors since the start of 2020. Regulatory heterogeneity is growing, posing an ever greater risk of digital fragmentation. Commercial policy developments over the past decade have erected more and more barriers between national digital sectors. Subsidy races are breaking out in the digital economy.”

We asked the data artists Visual Capitalist to reimagine the messages of Evenett and Fritz’s report, which among other things discovered a preponderance of interventions being carried out among the biggest economies of the world. The interventions occur across sectors ranging from content moderation to data governance, meaning state control of cross-border data flows.

Policy incoherence at home coexists with international regulatory divergence, Evenett and Fritz say. And the mistakes matter: A fragmented internet and global digital economy deny users choice, reduce innovation, and exacerbate global tensions.

For all its role as a globally unifying medium, the world is getting more unequal in internet infrastructure. Measured by secure internet servers, a basis of protected communications and foreign trade and investment, disparities in access to adequate infrastructure are widening across the globe.

Compounding the market distortions, a subsidy race is underway among governments, most notably in the semiconductor sector.

The perils of unilateral governance action are becoming clearer, the report says. Officials around the world should pay attention to these developments if they want to regulate and nurture their digital sectors.