Why Bill Gates doesn’t fear internet “balkanization”

There’s a lot of talk going around about the “balkanization” of the internet, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations – Brazil’s government and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, for example, are talking quite seriously about keeping traffic within their country’s borders as much as possible, and some worry this will lead to fragmentation.

I had a brief opportunity to speak with philanthropist and former Microsoft(s msft) chief Bill Gates on Wednesday at the Berlin offices of ResearchGate, the online scientific community in which he recently invested. Given that ResearchGate is an exemplar of the internet’s collaborative potential, helping scientists around the world work with one another, I asked Gates (pictured above with ResearchGate CEO Ijad Madisch) whether he thought fragmentation of the internet is something we should be worried about.

“I think there’s a lot of forces that, when anything tries to separate off, bring it back together,” he said. “Like in mobile phones, they tried to have their own way of doing things and that became part of one internet…. I’d say the forces of unification are stronger today – you know, video, journals, how you socialize – and every device you pick up really is just connecting into the internet.”

That’s a good point – connectivity is becoming more ubiquitous, and we’re mostly using the same services on the same platform. Online socialization, in particular, bears witness to the prevalence of the common platform (and “social” pages that plug into all sorts of intercontinental services, I might add, are the Achilles heel of any plans to localize traffic).

Gates also pointed to the one big example of semi-fragmentation that does exist, and noted that it hasn’t resulted in a breakdown of collaborative potential: “China is really the only one who to any meaningful degree has partitioned their stuff, but even there the scientific community is not separated in any way,” he said.

It would indeed take a pretty foolish government to remove its country entirely from the common platform that is the internet as we know it. In that sense, I think Gates is right not to fear so-called balkanization, though I suspect less drastic levels of fragmentation could still cause major pain for such a globalized internet industry.