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Facebook and Google’s new plan? Own the internet

America’s tech giants already own the online world. Now they want to own the internet’s infrastructure, too

The cloud is not an abstraction. Your photos, uploaded to Google’s cloud, do not float in the ether. Your iCloud backups do not break bread with the gods. The metaverse that Facebook is so keen on building will not exist in the heavens.

The name “cloud” is a linguistic trick – a way of hiding who controls the underlying technology of the internet – and the huge power they wield. Stop to think about it for a moment and the whole notion is bizarre. The cloud is, in fact, a network of cables and servers that cover the world: once the preserve of obscure telecoms firms, it is now, increasingly, owned and controlled by Big Tech – with Google and Facebook claiming a lion’s share.

Building data centre capacity is something of a full-time job for Big Tech. Here, in vast facilities spread across the world, your most private photos and messages sit on a hard drive on an anonymous computer on an anonymous rack, stacked alongside thousands of others in an out-of-town data centre, sited somewhere where energy and land are cheap.

The cloud is a hulking physical network. It forms a part of the internet’s backbone, which itself is overwhelmingly made up of a network of cables intersecting the world’s oceans. It is easy to imagine these as larger or grander than they are – in reality they are generally the width of a hosepipe, buried for a short distance from shore for security, but beyond that point allowed to sit freely on the sea bed.

A conversation with Bruce Neilson-Watts, who spent 16 years as a navigator, engineer and then a captain of boats working to lay and repair the cables, sheds a little more light on what they look like and how they work. The actual part of the cable which carries information across the continent is just the tiniest core of the hosepipe-width cable, with even that tiny thickness able to carry up to 100GBps or even 400GBps on newer cables in the smallest fractions of a second.

Much of the rest of the width is made up of petroleum jelly – yes, the same stuff that comes in a Vaseline jar – intended to protect the cables from water damage and corrosion, meaning even the physical structure of the internet is, in fact, lubed up. Make of that what you will.

The ownership of the data centres – and often as a result, our data – that power the internet is a matter of almost constant public debate. It’s the issue that drives conversations about tech monopolies and the overbearing power of internet platforms. But the same cannot be said of those transatlantic cables, almost 1.5 million kilometres of which now traverse almost every part of the globe.

These operators tend to stay out of sight. In reality, many of the world’s international cables are often owned by consortia of companies, who are often rivals in other contexts. Some major internet cables list as many as 50 owners, while only around a quarter appear to be operated by one company.

These companies charge others for the amount of data they transmit through the cables they own, but also barter access to cables owned by others in exchange for free access to theirs – a quiet share-and-share-alike system behind huge telecoms companies, all behind the scenes.

The world’s biggest owner of cables is a household name, at least to Americans – it’s AT&T, which has a stake in around 230,000 kilometres of international internet cabling, or around one sixth of the total. But looking at others in the top ten reveals why both Big Tech and Western governments are starting to pay the apparently dull issue of cable ownership more attention: in second place is China Telecom, while Chunghwa Telecom (based in Taiwan) is third and China Unicorn is sixth.

In the tenth and eleventh spots, however, are some very familiar names: Facebook and Google. Big Tech is getting into big cables – and doing so in a big way. Over the past few years, 80 percent of investment in new cables has flowed from the two US tech giants. As of today, Facebook owns or co-owns 99,399 kilometres of cables, Google 95,876 kilometres. And more investments are on their way: in August, Facebook and Google announced their plans for building a 12,000 kilometre undersea cable, Apricot, which will link Singapore, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia when completed in 2024. For Google, that came hot on the heels of a previous announcement about the Echo subsea cable, which will connect California, Singapore, Guam and Indonesia. For its part, Facebook has thrown its weight behind the coalition of telcos building what might turn out to be the longest subsea cable ever: 2Africa, a 45,000 kilometre-long cord planned to encompass the whole African continent and connect 33 countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle-East by 2024. In May 2020 Bloomberg reported that the project will cost under $1 billion – but that was before Facebook announced several expansions to the initial design.

The stated motivations for these efforts vary. Facebook especially frames part of its effort as being about improving internet access across the world – while admitting some advantage to itself through user growth if this succeeds. Google mostly highlights how greater connectivity will boost local economic prosperity.

Many internet cables follow the telecoms routes laid out in the early twentieth century, and so efforts to build huge new cables serving non-western countries (like, in a way, the 2Africa cable) are framed as an effort to decolonise the internet, albeit an uncomfortable one given the mix of companies and groups involved.

The tech giants have privacy and security reasons to get into cables, too. In 2013, when The Guardian and The Washington Post published revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the story that most angered American tech firms (especially Google) was about how the agency was intercepting traffic sent internally between their data centres.

Google’s response to this was both to ratchet up its use of encryption, even for traffic travelling internally (which can still mean across continents), and to increase its reliance on entirely private fibre-optic cables for such communications. And when you think like Google and the other tech giants, once you’re in the cable game, you might as well get in properly.

Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the USA’s Federal Communications Commission under president Obama – and self-avowed former lobbyist for the cable industry – says that Big Tech’s foray into cable-laying has also affected cable companies’ thinking. “The networks themselves are wildly jealous of, and therefore, are trying to assimilate into [Big Tech],” he says. Seeing Big Tech take a huge slice of the profit from the internet as platforms, many cable companies want to be platforms too, he explains. “Why did AT&T buy DirecTV? Why did they buy Time Warner, et cetera? They want to get into these platform activities.”

Where cable companies are realising they are missing out on power by missing out on being platforms, Big Tech platforms are making the opposite realisation: unless they have some sway in distribution, their power will be limited. And the Big Tech companies seem to be managing to buy up stakes in the internet’s backbone much more competently and quietly than their cable counterparts have managed the reverse (just think of the unhappy, short-lived takeover of AOL by Verizon.)

The list of stakeholders in the internet backbone shows who is trying to seize outright control of the internet. And, once again, it looks like the usual suspects have the tightest grip.

Courtesy of: James Ball

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