Is there only one internet?

Probably - for now. The internet is a disparate mix of interconnected computers, many of them on large networks run by universities, businesses and so on. What unites this network of networks are the communication languages known as the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, collectively TCP/IP. [via newscientist]

There are also a few large networks that use different protocols and which remain largely isolated from the internet, including something called FidoNet, which links bulletin board systems via the global telephone network, as well as a handful of military networks. The main internet is the only one of any significant size, as far as we know.

Yet while a common computer language has proved a key to the internet's phenomenal success, another form of language - this time human - could eventually trigger its fragmentation into several separate regional internets. In 2007, under pressure from China and Russia, ICANN finally allowed the use of non-Latin characters in online addresses. The move will help billions of Chinese and Russian speakers use the internet, making communications easier and improving online trade within these countries. However, it could also prove to be the beginning of the end for the internet as we know it.

One possibility is that we could see the appearance of domain names that are not recognised by the rest of the network. If servers or routers aren't set up to recognise the characters in these addresses, the domain names will not be readily accessible from all parts of the world.

Worse will come if, say, the Chinese government decides to set up its own root directory of Chinese domain names, held on its own computers and independent of the existing US-based directory. This could give the Chinese authorities control over which sites its citizens access, potentially giving it the power to largely isolate them from the rest of the net. "The language changes will accelerate national fragmentation of the internet," warns Tim Wu, professor of technology and law at Columbia University in New York. He predicts this will lead us down a road towards a divided internet: one part controlled by the US, one by China, and another by Russia.

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