The Internet and ‘balkanisation through regulation’
Updated on 14 September 2023
‘Balkanisation’ has become a popular term in Internet politics. It is reported that Erich Schmidt from Google introduced the concept of ‘Balkanisation through regulation’ in his warning about the risk of Internet governance being overtaken by the ITU during the upcoming Dubai Summit. Coming from the Balkan region myself, and knowing the history of Balkanisation, Schmidt’s warning triggered a few reflections in my mind.
At first glance, ‘Balkanisation through regulation’ is a contradiction in adjecto. When there were no rules and regulations, the Balkans used to slip into Balkanisation, defined as the division of territories into small and hostile countries. It happened when the Ottoman Rule was weakened in the nineteenth century, and the small Balkan nations started their rush to claim their territories. It happened when the Austro-Hungarian Empire started to collapse in the twentieth century. And it happened again, 20 years ago, when the Yugoslav state collapsed. Each of these historical events caused the end of a regulated and organised political and legal space, at least temporarily. The vacuum was filled with wars between competing nations, mainly for territorial control.
I guess that this was not the way Schmidt intended to link Balkanisation and regulation. It is the lack of regulation that led to Balkanisation.
If we move away from the Balkans, we can see that regulation is neither good nor bad per se. Ultimately, the success of Silicon Valley could be attributed to smart regulation by the US government, which was loose enough to let people create, and strict enough to protect consumers, innovators, and developers. This is how the authors of the book Why Nations Fail explain the main reason why Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page came to the fore in the USA and not in other countries:
The process of innovation is made possible by economic institutions that encourage private property, uphold contracts, create a level playing field, and encourage and allow the entry of new businesses that can bring new technologies to life.
Institutions and regulations matter a lot. Obviously there are good and bad regulations. Most likely, Schmidt used the phrase ‘Balkanisation through regulation’ in order to warn against bad regulation combined with the high centralisation of decision-making. In this possible scenario, regulation could lead to some sort of Balkanisation. If players are unhappy with bad and centralised regulation, they may run away, create their own ‘spaces’, and ultimately, fight each other, as happened in the Balkans. While this scenario is possible on the Internet, it is not probable.
The main challenge for all of us is to see if, and how, the great success of the US Internet regulation can be extended to the global level. How can we make global institutions strict enough to protect the public interests and establish a level playing field, and still loose enough not to suffocate creativity and innovation? This is the million-dollar question. If we manage to answer it, the Internet will not only be a great communication tool, it will also be an inspiration for a new way of governing global affairs.
As for the Balkans, the ongoing integration processes seem to promise that we will soon remember the region for the better. We should consider choosing some term other than Balkanisation – perhaps ‘fragmentation with violence’. Let’s give the Balkans a chance to recover in the public’s perception as well.
 Acemoglu D and Robinson JA (2012)Why Nations Fail – The origins of power, prosperity and poverty.Profile Books, p. 77