In the year 2000, former US president Bill Clinton jokingly said in a speech "Good luck!", in response to China's attempt to censor the internet. "That's sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall."
Earlier the same year, China launched the Golden Shield Project which was its first move to control the internet.
Clinton's prediction, however, did not age well. Two decades later, China is not only massively successful in "nailing Jell-O to the wall" but in also exporting it to other countries.
China's is the most sophisticated version of internet censorship, collectively it is known as the "great firewall". Many authoritarian regimes are not far behind in enforcing this elaborate system of control.
In the early days of the internet era, there was optimism. There was optimism that the internet would create a more open society. It would bring closer all walks of people around the world. Information would be accessible for all. A platform for all to communicate and share their ideas.
Things have changed now. The early optimism is slowly perishing. Rather than openness and integration, the narrative of ominous and apocalyptic scenarios now loom large.
And the culprits of this turnaround? Both the big tech companies and firewalls. The latter in general is a system of censorship tools designed to control what flows on the internet.
The world wide web, unlike commonly assumed, is breaking away from being a single marketplace. Rather, it provides differing experiences and ideas to people, depending on which government approved funnel they are seeing through.
This trend could splinter the internet into so many versions in which one is unrecognisable to the other.
Controlling the internet is like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, governments say that they are doing it for the sake of their own citizens; to save them from malware, cyberattacks and fake news. The same technology some governments are using to tackle the surge of fake news and propaganda are being used to stifle free speech somewhere else.
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, predicted the internet's breaking point in the future.
He said the most likely scenario is not the "splintering of the internet, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and non-Chinese internet led by America.", according to a report by CNBC.
Other experts, however, opine that the internet will be broken into many versions. Just like sovereign nations have total control and authority over its boundary, countries could establish sovereign internet.
Last May, Wuhan Diary, a Chinese writer named Fang Fang's narration of the initial Covid-19 breakout was published in English. Although the writer mildly criticised the local authority's attempt to cover-up the virus outbreak, he fell short of criticizing the central government's approach.
The writer was neither revolutionary nor a radical communist. One might think that this moderate account of the crisis would be welcomed, at least by the young generations who are - one might guess again - probably fed by Xi Jinping's increasing ironclad grip on society.
But that did not happen. It was received with strong backlash, and counterintuitively not from the Communist Party but from the Chinese citizens, mostly youths.
This incident strikingly illustrated the point made in Naom Chomsky's 'Manufacturing Consent'. Revisiting the Manufacturing Consent, one can easily adapt the tenets of the book in the present days' information age.
Since Jinping took over as the CCP chief, the regime doubled down on spreading propaganda and with so few alternative sources of information, propaganda has become the only reality. It is becoming more effective day by day.
In the tightly controlled and manipulated media, including the internet, the Communist party has been triumphant in making them believe that the West is failing and democracy does not work.
Although there are still exceptions, with increasing support from the Chinese youth, evidently the government is getting better at manufacturing consent.
This point is well put by Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch: "In my cohort—those who experienced a relatively free internet as young people—many strongly resent the Great Firewall. Among people who started college after Xi took power, however, there is a strong impulse to defend it."
Is it all doom and gloom?
"The Berlin Wall tumbled down, the great firewall of China - I don't think it will tumble down, I think it will be released," said Tim Berners-lee, the founder of the World Wide Web. He is one of the experts who still believes that the internet will ultimately benefit humanity.
He believes that his invention needs an upgrade for the digital future, especially in terms of privacy and freedom of individuals. He also looks forward to building a platform called "Solid", which he believes gives users back the control of the internet than big tech companies and governments.
Berners-Lee has been currently occupied with the creation of the platform Solid (Social Linked Data), in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Oxford University. The objective is to create a decentralised internet where individuals control their data.
In this way, the data will no longer be stored by individual companies such as Google or Facebook, even if their technologies are used. Rather, it will be stored where the users prefer it to be. That way, everyone gains more control over their own data, which is stored in decentralised pods.
Just like with the internet around 30 years ago, he is convinced that this platform will be the digital future. But only the future will testify if his latest invention can foil the apparently brewing catastrophe.