August 17, 2004  ·  Tim Wu

So how often do you actually visit sites in other countries? How about in other languages?

If you’re like many users, the answer may “not that often” (apologies to the foreign readers of Lessig Blog). Its a small sign of the Balkanization of the Internet, a process that is happening faster than anyone is noticing. What we once called a global internet is becoming, for many practical purposes, a collection of nation-state networks, still linked by the internet protocol, but for many purposes, separate. Some of the evidence:

– In China, beyond censorship, the amount of actual data flowing in and out as compared to within the country is diminishing. A fairly recent study found 72% of information used to be domestic. And China’s non-IP “169″ intranet — think the AOL walled garden turned into a jungle — is getting nearly as large as the actual Chinese internet. And why not — unlike AOL, its 80% cheaper, and has most of the Chinese content.

– Every-improving geolocation software have made big sites like Google national. As Esther Dyson writes of Google, “Google has now significantly upgraded its geographic targeting. When an advertiser buys an AdWord, it can specify geography, not just by city or region as it can now, but by a radius around a specific address or by specific geographic boundaries.” With that kind of precision, Google can easily cater to distinct national interests.

– Australia is considering a country-wide government filter, designed, for now, to keep out hard-core porn.

– Europe’s privacy laws, and cases like this one, make hosting separate web services for Europe a consideration.

– Amercian IP enforcement, as everyone reading this blog knows, makes shielding content from the U.S. markets make sense. Ditto for Australian libel laws.

– Bandwidth differences are hindering inter-connectivity. Countries like S. Korea are largely broadband, while others are mixed, and still others are primarily narrowband. Its tough for narrowband users to access sites in countries that assume broadband.

That this is happening doesn’t answer whether its a good or bad thing. So good, bad, reversable, inevitable? All this happens also to be the subject of my current book, so I’d love to hear it.

UPDATE: From the Comments
“There is significant irony in term used here – balkanization. … In short, internet is maybe the only thing that has not been balkanized in the Balkans.”
-Veljko Kukulj
“The Balkanization of the internet is one of the great things about it…. A healthy internet is not one where netizens click uninterestedly to sites of all the nations, it�s one where netizens participate.” – Branko Collin
“Right now I�d love to be able to visit the BBCs five live channels of Olympic coverage � but the ip^2 walls are preventing us. That�s an interesting story of balkanization in itself.” – James Howison
“[From China] In fact, the ongoing People�s War against Pornography did not rely that much on technology but on email addresses and phone numbers where concerned citizens could complain.” – Fons Tuinstra

  • Pakush

    Does this mean the world is going to end?

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Inevitable to attempt. Take a look at my Pioneer Award speech. The idea that all social controls were just going to melt away, was absurd.

    If sexual information can be controlled for teenagers in America, then political information can be controlled for citizens in China.

    If political information *can’t* be controlled for citizens in China, then sexual information *can’t* be controlled for teenagers in America.

    Pick one. Either way, the implications are significant.

    It’s useless to repeat one’s own personal values on China, politics, teenagers, and sex. What matters are the implications.

    My saying about this: “The bits don’t know why they shouldn’t flow”.

  • Fons Tuinstra

    Sorry for messing up your idea about balkanization: I write this from Shanghai. While I still think your idea might be valid, the technological means you mention are not as powerful as cultural barriers. On a practical level: China has no walled intranet – some government departments have been playing with the idea years ago, but it has never materialized. Censorship does exist, but technological means have failed to do their job. In fact, the ongoing People’s War against Pornography did not rely that much on technology but on email addresses and phone numbers where concerned citizens could complain.
    I do think it is a good idea when you guys at your side of the fence have an idea what is happening here. I’m in the early phases of a project here, but you can already have a peek at

  • Jonathan Menon

    The issue you raise supports something I have always thought: technology itself is not enough to bring the world together, just as the internet is not enough in itself to level traditional power bases, as the discussions on your site so eloquently demonstrate.

    The big issues are always about people, and how ordinary people choose to use whatever capabilities art and technology can provide them.

    In the past few centuries, and especially in the Western world, we have used technology to kill, maim, and control; to put up barriers between different peoples as much as to pull them down. The decision of the average internet user to value themselves and their own over others, whether we are talking about people or web sites, is qualitatively the same impulse that caused us to use nuclear technology not primarily to solve the world’s problems and improve the human condition, but to destroy and polarize.

    The real issue for us in this century is not “innovation”, as so many technology pundits are convinced, but the “application” of that innovation, and the responsibilities and values that define it.

  • Branko Collin

    The Balkanization of the internet is one of the great things about it. If my hobby is painting the spots on ladybugs green, I am unlikely to find anyone who shares my passion living nearby. However, with the world at my fingertips I can suddenly locate almost all of those who have the same interests.

    A natural extension of this is that people will stay within their own culture more and more. A healthy internet is not one where netizens click uninterestedly to sites of all the nations, it’s one where netizens participate.

  • Veljko Kukulj

    There is significant irony in term used here – balkanization. As I live in the actual region that coined that term, I can testify that the internet based media outlets (news sites, forums, blogs etc.) are regularly read and commented by all ethnic groups that live in all of the countries here. Often it has significant impact on local policies and politicians that use practice of different “home” and “foreign” stands on critical issues. In short, internet is maybe the only thing that has not been balkanized in the Balkans.
    In my opinion, if your native language is not a “major brand” (like English, Cinese, Spanish, French, German or Russian) then you use internet as global thing and search your own information. This is mostly because in your local language you can find local news, and that you can “use up” fast. Then you can either wait for someone to translate the global news for you or you can go to the sources yourself. On the other hand, the information served in major languages is more then enough for common, lazy reader. Frankly, if you live on the other side of the world from Florida, you need for hurricane information is on the headline level, and if you live there it was the only thing you wanted to know.
    The importance of things (or maybe perception of importance) is something that can be manipulated, but hardly regulated. So if you look at “global network” as definition, it is the measure of capacity – how it could (and to some extent will) be used. “Filling” that capacity is much more complicated – this is not one world (just look at it from a few cultural backgrounds), and the resulting “global” view is multilayered.
    Maybe we should look at the internet as at unicode – one can fit everything there, but use just the fraction that locally needs…

  • Don Smith

    I regularly obtain information from at least 3 british news services. And on occasion have surfed to sites such as pravda or the prc’s newspaper when their news sites were aggregated into my news aggregator’s site (can’t remember whether it was google or yahoo). While I would argue that perhaps the internet is more english slanted than anything else, I definitely would not say that location is a limiting factor of how i obtain my information.

  • nate

    Not to be too negative, Tim, but I think you should reconsider your premise. Certainly you could argue that the internet is dividing people, but on almost anything but country lines.

    > So how often do you actually visit sites in other countries?

    Constantly, many a day. I do Open Source development and the community is pretty global. I read and get news from around the globe. I often even listen to overseas radio stations…

    > How about in other languages?

    Not nearly as often, but that has to do with my lack of fluency in those languages. Certainly I have more daily encounters with other languages than I did pre-Internet.

    > – In China, beyond censorship, the amount of actual data flowing
    > in and out as compared to within the country is diminishing.

    Umm, yes, but isn’t the total volume up dramatically? More and more Chinese are getting online, not just those that speak English, and more and more Chinese companies are putting up sites. I just got back from a trip to China, and found Internet cafe’s prevelent and censorship non-apparent. A book about what’s actually happening in China regarding the internet (certainly not as simple as I thought before going) would be an interesting topic.

    I feel silly going on in this vein. My main points can be summarized by comparing the internet to other sources of media and information: I think that generally the trend has been to open up borders rather than to close them.

  • Anonymous

    building on an above post, it might be worthwhile to look how much language barriers have to do with this. I know one other language fairly well (French) and have can count the number of French language websites I’ve ever looked at on one hand. I can’t say if the reason for that is laziness to do the translating in my head or just that I’ve had no reason to look for French sites.

    Many people spend time online by going from page to page, clicking on links, reading, followng another link, reading, and so on. If you somehow get a graph representation of what sites link to what, I think there are mathematical models you can use to determine how interconnected different areas of the graph are, and maybe how likely one is in everyday surfing to come upon links to a foreign site. I know for me personally, the only time I end up at non-US sites are times when I follow a link to something I am interested in.

  • rich

    Why would I go to a page written in a language I don’t read?

    The Internet’s primary purpose is to transmit data. By definition the data will only be useful if it’s data that’s relevant to you. It’s obvious that not all people will seek the same data; once different categories of user reach critical mass, how is a Balkanization of the internet anything but inevitable?

    The China example is particularly potent, and is I think categorically different from the Aussie porn shield. It’s reasonable to expect that a great many Chinese people wouldn’t speak English, French, Italian or Arabic, and since Chinese content on the Internet is likely produced largely in China (or at least in greater concentration in China than in, say, Argentina) it makes sense that 72% of China’s information needs would be domestic.

    Stop and consider for a moment what sort of data isn’t language dependant: images, music (to the extent that understanding lyrics is not vital to appreciating the content), maybe step by step diagramatic instructions of things like hobby crafts (I certainly wouldn’t want someone, say, performing first aid on me based only on diagrams and instructions in a language they don’t speak!). There’s no more reason I would access a Chinese newspaper than a non-English speaker would access my blog. To that extent, porn filters might be seen as even more insidiuous, since they block one of the few forms of pervasive Internet content that isn’t wholy language dependant. ;)

    This is also why sites like exist. If someone has produced a humorous piece of content that’s only in Japanese, someone who gets it will post it to an idea crossroads and get it noticed. I’d never think to go to a Japanese page to seek some amusing animation or video clip, beacuse I wouldn’t know how to find it, because I can’t process the data. To that extent the Internet is still very global, because it’s remarkably unlikely that there’d ever be a print equivelent of Fark – immediacy of the content notwithstanding, the cost of such an international body of editors in a print-based publication would be prohibitive.

    That nation states are attempting to assert soverignity over a decentralized network is unfortunate, but also inevitable in a capitalist structure; information is a form of capital, and capitalists by definition seek to control as much capital as possible. But I think that’s a fundamentally different phenom than the reasonable assumption that people will naturally tend toward content created in their primary language, coupled with the reasonable assumption that content in a given language will tend to be produced regionally, at least on a macro level.

    The global Internet has only ever been as global as its lowest common denominator. At risk of being branded a PC liberal, I’m reasonably certain that during the height of the “global Internet” rhetoric, the majority of the information on the global Internet was written in English, and most of that rhetoric was being repeated by English speakers. This probably didn’t seem all that global to people who weren’t fluent in the language.

  • Jeff Licquia

    One word: Esperanto.

  • James Howison

    You are clearly going to have to make a sharp distinction between diaspora (those who (or who’s ancestors are) from a country/culture living internationally) and those living inside a country.

    Obviously those in the diaspora head to websites in their home (or ancestoral) culture more often. I urge you to look at the internet use of Philippines working throughout Asia and the Middle east to see a prototypical example of that.

    Like porn driving streaming video, it seems to me that ex-pat sports are driving pay-per-view broadcasts of sports that typically came in over TV. Here in the states cricket lovers tune into to watch Cricket and during the Rugby world cup it was a million times cheaper to watch the Rugby online rather than via the expensive delayed Fox World Sports channel. It is a classic example of economics of scale being reached in a new way (not enough interest for regular cable but the internet flattens the distribution market enough that a critical mass is aggregated).

    Right now I’d love to be able to visit the BBCs five live channels of Olympic coverage … but the ip^2 walls are preventing us. That’s an interesting story of balkanization in itself.

    ip^2 == Intellectual property enforced by ip address ranges (GeoIP)

  • Andrew Leifer

    I have to wonder if this is a mute point. The majority of people out there simply don’t care whats happening outside of their respective region let alone their nation.
    I do believe however, that the net has still fulfilled its promise of providing global perspectives for those who want them.

    Scientific communities for example, span countries and boundaries and benefit greatly from keeping up to date with eachothers work. Displaced ethnic groups offer another such example. I have a Russian coworker here in the U.S. who constantly reads the latest Russion news from his hometown in Russian. The same goes for my coworkers from Brazil and France. For foreigners working in the U.S.. or anywhere abroad, the internet offers a lifeline back to their home. Journalists too benefit constantly from the ability to see how actions here are viewed abroad.

    The bottom line is that for those who seek it, the internet does offer global perspectives. With perhaps the exception of China or hard core porn, the net is availalbe to anyone from anywhere. The sad fact is that humans as a whole could care less.

  • Oskar Nijs

    >So how often do you actually visit sites in other countries?

    Every single day.

    >How about in other languages?

    This site is in another language ;) ,daily. But mainly I visit sites that are either in Dutch or English.

    I usually try to follow world events by visiting a number of different site in different countries, so I can get some different views on the events.

  • eleanor

    It is interesting that I came across this link via, a “social bookmarks” link-sharing site with users from all over the world. The front page features posts from members in many languages and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it. It reminds me that I am part of a global community and opens me up to sites and points of view that I might otherwise not know about. Like many Americans I only feel comfortable with one language, English. But, also like many Americans, I can stumble through enough French, Spanish or German to navigate a site in search of interesting content. Then, using Babelfish or Google, I can get a translation.

    So, while I don’t disagree with your findings, I do think that the internet has done more to bring people together than other technology. There is nothing really unusual about people sticking within their cultural borders, most of us do it all the time, but the internet has opened the world in amazing ways.

    That said, there was recent conversation at by some users about adding the ability to filter out posts by language, something that I think would be sad.

  • laodan

    Oh, the big promize of the global village.
    First Tv’s then the Net but what we got instead of this promize is a radical restructuring of the policies of national states (politics going all out for “rational markets”).

    Let’s cease to be naive.
    Technologies are not meant primarily for the well being of the citizens but well for the control of the citizens by the capital that initially invested in these technologies.

    If the citizens’ well being were the primary concern of new technologies that come to market, the world would be a very, very different place.
    - Information would be Open for each to Access.
    - Intellectual property rights would not put brakes on the human potential for always adding more complexity to our preception of reality.
    - Individual means of transportation would not necessarily blanket public means of transportation and so on.

    In our age of all out globalization of big capital, nations states are being rendred instruments of social control through manipulation of the perception of reality by all the individuals in such a fashion that we all unconsciently should follow the path traced by the managers of our new global empires, the corporations.

    - Explain me how the individuals could be interested in knowing what is going on in the rest of the world when all that has been teached in schools is a watered down version of nationalistic history in all the countries of the world and more particularly in the US and the EU.
    - Explain me how the individuals could be interested to click on foreign sites when our news is given through the glasses of nationalism and more particularly in the US and the EU. Take the opportunity of the present olympic games to listen to the commentaries of tv reporters… is it not an all out apology of nationalism that somehow makes us reject “the other”?
    - I could go on like that…

    In the end, my point is that technology is not neutral. There is indeed a capitalistic selection of the technologies that will prevail in the market.
    Thus, as conclusion, we should always remain conscient that the potential for technologies to generate better days for humaniy in the future is an ideal that unfortunately always is broken down by the pragmatic logic that is embedded within capital.

  • JimK

    I can’t say I visit sites in other languages. I can’t read them. Kind of kills the experience.

    I go where my interests take me, which tends to be North American, with some UK, Australian and a few English-language Brazilian sites thrown in. And because I’m a big fan of euro-dance electronic music, I end up at English-language Scandanavian/Dutch/Norwegian/Belgian sites all the time.

  • Tim Wu

    These are very useful comments. Incidently this whole exchange made page 1 of the “Warren’s Washington Internet Daily,” under the headline:

    “Global Internets Fragmentation by Govnts, Innovation, Debated.”

  • Chris Adams

    In my experience the split is almost entirely based on language and national boundaries aren’t much more significant than, say, one’s choice of hosting companies – server speed is frequently the only reason I notice it at all. I read English-language content from other English-speaking countries (.uk, .ca, .nz, .au) and Europe (.de, .nl, .no, .es, .fr, .hu, .ru) daily, India/Japan/Taiwan nearly as often and a number of the remaining countries on a monthly basis.

    In contrast I read Spanish-language content perhaps once or twice a month even though a massive amount is produced in the United States and Mexico (I live ~30 minutes from the border) and much of it is relevant to my interests.

  • Sybilla

    You’re missing out on a large part of the Internet-community: the users from small countries/languages. I am sure American people can find anything on the Internet without ever having to visit a foreign site but how about the Dutch for instance? In my feedreader there are maybe 2 or 3 Dutch feeds; the (very large) majority is in English.

    Currently we (Dutch edu-bloggers) have a discussion going on whether we should all be blogging in English to broaden our audience. I think we shouldn’t because however fluent your English, your mother tongue allows you to express yourself in a unique way which is typical for your blog only. I will try to put a summary in English underneath each relevant post, starting with the one about your ‘Balkanization’.

    Besides: your trackback isn’t working.

  • WJM

    I can�t say if the reason for that is laziness to do the translating in my head or just that I�ve had no reason to look for French sites.

    Keep reading French sites. Don’t read word for word, translation for translation, read sentence for sentence, meaning for meaning. You’ll get to the point where you won’t be “translating in your head”, and you’ll get there quick.

    This is one thing I’ve come to love google for; being able to find short texts in a language I’m interested in, on a topic I’m interested in, that I can clip into my word processor, reformat, and give to myself as an exercise.

  • Raoul

    Why is there no software that will automatically translate any major language found on a web page? Could it be intellectual property law stifling innovation? Microsoft? Or are we just not there yet. Eventually the Balkanization issue should be moot as all of cyberspace communicates via binary language anyway.

  • Tim Wu

    Does anyone ever read sites using a translation service, like altavista?

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Very occasionally, I’ll read a foreign site’s page which mentions me for some reason (strangely, these almost always seem to be in German).

  • tim wu

    Ah, the ego-translation. haha.

  • WJM

    Free translation. You get what you pay for… This are Raoul’s and Seth Finklestein’s comments, in English, as back-googletranslated from the English googletranslated into German.

    Why is there no software, which automatically translates each host language, which on a 4web PAGE is found? Could it be stifling innovation of the law of the mental property? Microsoft? Or we are not straight there already. Finally the expenditure should be contentious Balkanization, while that stands somehow whole Cyberspace over binary language in connection.

    Very occasionally, I?ll read a strange site?sseite, me from any reason mentioned (strangely, these nearly always seemed to be on German).

  • Chip Unicorn

    About Esperanto:

    I agree that an easy-to-learn, international, non-national language would be extremely helpful to prevent the split-up of the Internet into national networks. I agree that Esperanto is the best choice for such a goal. (I should also note that I’m learning it through “” and I have an Esperanto-language blog at “”)


    Learning any language is difficult, even if it’s as easy as Esperanto. And since so much of the world’s money is controlled by English-speaking people, most of the world is drawn more to English than Esperanto. Whichever languages have the strongest economic incentives will get the most people learning them.

    In short, I don’t expect an Esperanto-speaking world in our lifetime.

  • WJM

    “Learning any language is difficult, even if it�s as easy as Esperanto.”

    This is the biggest myth that has ever been foisted on the education system and popular culture.

    Learning your first non-native language, esp. as an adult, can be challenging, but the right teacher should find what works for you. Especially if that teacher is you.

    Learning your second is dead easy.

    Learning your first non-native language is as much about learning how to learn language as it is about learning French/Arabic/Ibo. Once your language brain starts breaking out of the chains of unilingualism, it just wants more, more more.

  • C�dric

    If one assumes the process you describe is true, does balkanization drive out the cyberspace? I think twe two are superposed: OK we usually navigate in the same zones (balkans) but we still can go elsewhere!

  • Anonymous

    Sprint plans on offering cell phones that feature TV broadcasts sometime this week. Here’s the trick–no one is going to pay to see reruns of “Friends” on the two-inch screen of their cell phone, but Sprint is banking the investment on the fact that lots of people will pay to see their local weather, traffic reports, or watch their local sports team score almost in real time. Doesn’t this just show that technology will be utilized for interests and well, most interests are local?

  • Colin

    The real coding and filtering problem, if you ask me, is language, and the ones building walls around ourselves are the Americans. Us, I mean.

    The rest of the world, or at least the educated classes in the rest of the world, have a much higher rate of multilingualism than we do. Our ideas flow out and get reverse engineered and come in the form of Chinese brand-name knockoffs. We wring our hands about how to stop this process, but we have made only feeble attempts to establish a reciprocal flow.

    There is multibillion-dollar industry that addresses that fact, too (LISA). People who are able to connect different linguistic spheres, whom I like to call “blogalizers,” are the intellectual property privateers who threatens to make of the English-speaking Internet an “island, entire of itself” within a few decades. If we don’t do something about this, our intelligence will continue to fail. As long as these dangerous people are around (traduttore traditore) to join forces with the global smartmob of privacy geeks, no technical balkanization of the kind enforced from a power center (e.g., the Great Firewall) can completely succeed.

    To give a dramatic example: did you know that the Iraqi insurgency blogs? In Arabic, thanks to Unicode? Or at least one faction of the loosely tied groups that seem to be sharing tips on where those ammo dumps we never secured are located. And do you know who hosts its blog? They have a paid account at Blogspot, so presumably their data flows into a server farm somewhere near you. And they know who Larry Lessig is, too. Do we know what they are all about? And what might be happening right now if we did?

    Or to give a more familiar example: Indian software engineers who made piles of hard currency with their H-1 visas — and deservedly so, as we could never have done all this without them — and then leveraging that hard currency into investments that created the IT outsourcing industry. And what are they doing now? They are back home figuring out ways to localize programming tools for Indian languages, and negotiating partnerships with the Chinese — in English, presumably. It’s called glocalization, the latest bit of consultant-speak.

    I predict that the language of the future will be a second language. Any second language will be better than none. Those that lack linguistic resources will be imposing balkanization on themselves. But you know this already: You are working on International Commons, right?

  • Paul Cretu

    Balkanization …. is this a pejorative term? At least sound like one.
    Why didn’t you use “fragmentization”, “division” or any other word? This word sounds to me kind of xenophobic and racist.


  • PxMjrCyUYI

    tramadol online cheap generic tramadol – tramadol online shipped to florida

  • vqxjpgNgIK

    valium online valium dosage chart – valium effects duration

  • UkcsUrnJaP

    buy cialis no prescription canada buy cialis canada – cialis price in canada

  • MuAocqFLKG

    buy cialis cialis daily forum – cialis price compare

  • xRjxYlyAOQ cialis pro reviews – canadian pharmacy cialis online

  • PabMECGTDq

    visit site diazepam valium no prescription – valium 10mg buy online

  • fLaSsQQBfo

    Find Out More soma yoga ithaca – is the medication soma a narcotic

  • rsSEWtpiaN

    can you buy tramadol online legally tramadol and suboxone – tramadol with high blood pressure

  • LFxxYHzImN

    buy cialis cialis price rise – cialis online fast shipping

  • BqWZrimaGk

    Source tramadol hcl is used for what –

  • myYEJJzkOj

    This Site cheap tramadol no prescription needed – tramadol hcl drug

  • kyTYNNyQhM

    valium no prescription buying valium online forum – what is valium 10mg

  • AKYxYvZdXJ

    Our site valium – 10 mg buy online – medication prince valium lyrics

  • yJdEHiUEYu

    url buy valium online no prescription canada – buy valium online india

  • HPfbRATvVh valium 5mg image – wholesale-pharmacy valium

  • YJxzegrBcC

    buy tramadol tramadol online from mexico – tramadol dosage pain dogs

  • OxRjryfvDA

    Continue Reading tramadol hcl breastfeeding – buy tramadol legally

  • Alisia Gomez

    I have visited to this website many times and whenever I find out useful projects for me so I would suggest please come to this website and take the opportunity from here. assos kadırga koyu otelleri

  • Alisia Gomez

    This post is very easy to research and appreciate without creating any details out. Fantastic work!
    domain name sales