The shape of the internet: A tale of power & money

A peak into the patterns emerging from our global communications networks

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What geographies

have these bits of text

traveled across

before reaching your screen?

Having heard everything is “in the Cloud”, you might have come to believe that the internet is managed over satellites in space. But “the Cloud” in which our emails are stored looks more like a warehouse crammed with specialized computers (“servers”), and huge cooling systems that keep the computers from overheating. Though satellites often provide internet services to remote areas, the internet’s backbone is still a set of fiber cables thin enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Cables that travel over thousands of miles to enable a global communications system.

Below are four historical maps. The esthetics have been standardized, but what is being transported across these lines varies.

Can you guess which is which?

Options, ordered randomly:

  • Main Maritime shipping routes (2017)
  • Submarine Internet cables with a capacity of over 250GB per second (2015)
  • Trade and patrol routes of the British Empire (circa 1885)
  • Telegraph cable route (1904)
Fig 1. Map of 4 different historical networks. (Answers at the end of this piece)

It’s not a simple task, right? How come the information and trade networks look so similar? How come it’s difficult to tell the British Empire’s routes from the current architecture of the undersea internet cables? Is it perhaps that they are informed by a similar context? Or is it that they share a set of diriving values?

Why is this relevant?

Most people acknowledge that a building’s architecture will influence or even prescribe future interactions within it. Architecture is therefore not only about the past, but about the present and future. The same thing can be said of the patterns that emerge when observing the network of undersea internet cables.

Though we might have expected that the spirit underlying the internet’s design principles would have promoted greater decentralization, economic and political factors have led to its centralization. It is estimated that

When we look at the global infrastructure, we see that the central highways (fastest routes, enabled by cables with the highest bandwidth) create a pattern: Hub-and-spoke. Of the five highest capacity international routes in the Latin American region, four are connected to Miami.

Fig. 2 Scheme of a Hub-and-Spoke Network design

The infrastructure creates a picture that looks like the wheel of a bicycle: It has a center, or hub (Miami, in the case of Latin America), and many spokes connecting it to smaller hubs (Cities of Latin America). The architecture allows incumbent content companies to reduce costs. They centralize the hosting of content in one location and create highways to that location to ensure it can serve many places effectively.

The existence of this infrastructure, combined with local monopolies at the international gateways, reinforces the centrality of such location over time, creating reasons for other companies to establish that location as the center of their operations. Basically, given the Internet’s design principles we might have expected a greater degree of decentralization. Yet, messages from people in Latin America and Africa typically have to hop through the US or EU to reach third parties. Efficiency is the key driver. Pair this ethos with historical inequalities, first move advantage, and a system that banks on economies of scale, and you have an architecture that will reinforce existing inequalities.

This architecture is problematic

The internet is a transnational project by nature. The technology as such is designed not to care where the data is housed, and its designers hoped it would lead to a decentralized network. Yet this technology does not operate in a vacuum: Social, economic and political forces operate upon it. And the trend towards a hub-and-spoke architecture is fueling a big set of problems. In particular for:

1) NATIONAL SECURITY: Snowden’s revelations gave us a glimpse into how the nerve centers of transnational traffic, like Miami, are being abused. For example, leaked documents revealed how the US’ intelligence services exploited this central hub to monitor the communications between the Brazilian President and German Chancellor.

2) DEVELOPMENT: Although the local server does not generate much employment directly (it mostly employs machines), it can spur economic activity indirectly. Quality storage infrastructure allows local startups to provide better service to local customers, and eventually export digital goods and services to the global market. Local infrastructure also promotes the growth of related industries, such as energy, which is key for data centers that need to run 24/7 at a stable temperature.

That is why we should worry when big content companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft launching exclusive submarine cables. Approximately 70% of the increase in global international bandwidth over the past five years can be attributed directly to these companies, often in the shape of exclusive cables.

Instead of pulling their weight to ensure international gateways remain open for all players, big content incumbents are creating the private highways of the 21st Century. Big incumbents are improving the quality of their own services, without chipping into the commons. These exclusive cables:

  • Reduce incentives for these big tech companies to build more data storage infrastructure in the South. This infrastructure allows data to travel from their servers in the North to their customers in the South in a fraction of a second.
  • Undercut the comparative advantage of local startups that build data storage locally.
  • Undermine the competitiveness of other Northern companies, who can’t rely on these highways to serve customers in the South, locking the South in with incumbent market leaders.
  • Don’t offer companies from the South an equivalent access to the Northern market, anchoring our populations into the role of tech consumers instead of tech producers, and reinforcing what many are calling data extractivism: where data from people in the south is used to fuel economies in the north. A re-articulation of centuries old colonial and neo-colonial practices that have not served us well.

Value and economic growth are increasingly dependent on a country’s capacity to harness digital markets. In the US, the sector grew an average of 5.6% per year, over the last 11 years. That’s three times above the US average. Of the top 10 global billionaires, 6 are US businessmen that lead global tech companies. The internet is enabling a new wave of wealth concentration. Early disruptors are taking over entire markets, both locally and globally, and locking them in. We need to ensure that local communities get a fair share of value the the internet creates or redistributes.

3) RIGHTS: New technologies have changed much of what is valuable, how people socialize and exchange ideas. Society is changing. Thus, governments need to adapt and ensure that these technological systems are in line with our rights and are subject to democratic accountability.

In the case of the internet, this includes ensuring we have a say regarding how our data is processed, by whom, for what purposes, and to whose benefit. Yet it is becoming increasingly evident that global companies without local infrastructure have no incentives to uphold local laws, especially in small or low and middle income countries.

Forcing global companies to store data locally is thus increasingly perceived as the only lever left for democratically elected representatives to ensure that the rights and interests of their constituencies are respected and promoted.

So a false dichotomy increasingly dominates public debate: either we continue enabling a system in which global tech companies take over local businesses and concentrate wealth at an appalling scale, or we allow our governments to take control of the digital space and abuse our data…

Meanwhile, far from the dreams of a public commons that was sparked with the internet’s inception, the internet has become the place where giants like the US, China and the EU wage their battle. A battle for markets and political influence. A battle which most countries in the so called Global South are not engaged in… but rather considered the spoils to be taken /Terra nullius, “Nobody’s land”.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

Our political leaders stand little to no chance of getting a better deal from these companies if they act individually. These corporations, powerful as they already are, also rely on the diplomatic machine of powerful nation states to ensure policies remain favorable to them.

We should start blowing the embers of international solidarity. We are stuck between the US-EU corporations that fight to keep running an unfair scheme, and Chinese giants that call for a new round of map carving.

The expectation is that we would be called to make a “choice” and join one of these intranets. Yet under the current paradigm our choices would still be restricted to the cogs section of machines that favor the centers at the expense of the peripheries.

The scale and interconnection of the problems the planet faces calls for a planetary scale mindset. Yet the dominant framework of globalization, and its upcoming variations, continue to offer nothing but the re-articulation and re-branding of ages-old extractivist practices. Thus, we will need to reclaim this rhetorical space as something broader and deeper than what “globalization” currently offers. We need to build it into a new structure of awareness that is capable of interpreting and articulating policies that are commensurate with the urgent cultural, social and environmental challenges we face… a planetary turn, rooted in notions of international solidarity and justice.

Yet this shift will only occur if the South, whose geographies and bodies are bearing the biggest burden, manages to stick together and operate as a block that represents the antithesis to the current model. A block ready to effectively remove itself from the position of the cog and turn the machines at the centers of power to a halt if needed. For re-negotiations towards the much needed planetary model to be effective, this threat will need to be be perceived as both credible and actionable.

Since these unequal power relations are not new, perhaps it’s a good moment to re-fuel and bolster the ranks of a space that was designed to counter central powers through coordinated solidarity: the non-aligned movement. This movement sprouted during the Cold War to ensure the peripheries could resist attempts by the US and the USSR to control our politics and resources. And it seems like the current context calls for a strong come-back.

The good news is that there are examples of effective and fruitful coordination even in the more recent past, on matters such as intellectual property rights over drugs. There’s a lot of work ahead, but it can be done.

Perhaps, achieving this change requires that we first change our discourse: It is not just a matter of connecting to the world, but HOW we connect to the world.

  • What experience should the internet offer our people?
  • Will their rights be protected?
  • Will it help them develop their identity?
  • Will they be able to become content producers, or will they be restricted to being consumers?
  • Will they obtain a fair compensation for their work?

The internet is ours. We make its wheels churn with every piece of content we upload, every hyperlink we place between two pieces of information, and every megabyte of data we pay for. So let’s make our voices heard: We demand something better, and we have everything we need to get it. So let’s start talking about how’s…the when is now!

________

Surprised by the maps? Share this survey: https://surveylegend.com/s/1lan It tests people to see if they know which is which. A didactic way of making them notice that the patterns emerging from the Internet’s undersea cables are problematic (Results to be shared soon!).

Eager to dive deeper? Here’s a list of documentaries, books, interactive maps and tools. Please suggest others!

Possible project: Scaling up the maps “game” into a fully interactive website. If you are a designer interested in collaborating in that effort, reach out! Project: Create more standardized maps + a full-fledged website.

Notes:

Maps (Answers):

Map A= Major Trade & Patrol Routes of the British empire (circa 1885). Key: Red: major trade routes. Blue: Patrol routes (steam). Dotted: Patrol routes (sail). Source: https://www.themaparchive.com/british-empire-and-trade-routes-c-1885.html

Map B= Main Maritime Routes (circa 2017). Key: Thick line: Main routes. Thinner line: secondary routes. Source: https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=2067

Map C=Submarine Internet Cable Map depicting cables with over 250GB per second of bandwidth (2015). Key: Capacity (Gigabytes per second) Green 250 to 1k Yellow: 1k -2k Orange 2k to 3k. Red: More than 3k. Source: https://www.premiumtimesng.com/features-and-interviews/185654-frequently-asked-questions-about-internet-governance.html]

Map D: Telegraph cable route (1904). Ref: “1904 Karte des Weltkabelnetzes from Oskar Moll”. Source: http://atlantic-cable.com/Maps/index.htm]

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All images in this piece are available for reuse (CC-BY @juanof9 & Themajiks)

An extended version of this piece was published through Think South

Justice & participation. ICTs & Data. Affiliate @BKCHarvard. Alumni: @oiiOxford & @blavatnikSchool . Chevening Scholar. Views=personal. Here-> open discussion.